California Bill Would Block Drone Spying

By on March 5, 2013

by Nick Hankoff

They’re coming. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as they’re otherwise called, have been cleared to use the public airspace since the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act passed last year. It is now up to the states to integrate this emerging technology with handouts to pay for them from the Department of Homeland Security. In California, Assembly members Jeff Gorell, a Republican, and Steven Bradford, a Democrat, have teamed up to severely limit the use of drones by state and local law enforcement as well as private individuals.

AB 1327, similar to the Privacy Protection Act, stipulates when a warrant is required:

9 (b)  A law enforcement agency may use an unmanned aircraft system, or contract for the use of an unmanned aircraft system, if it has a reasonable expectation that the unmanned aircraft system will collect evidence relating to criminal activity and if it has obtained a warrant based on probable cause pursuant to this code.
(c)  A law enforcement agency, without obtaining a warrant, may use an unmanned aircraft system, or contract for the use of an unmanned aircraft system, in emergency situations, including, but not limited to, fires, hostage crises, and search and rescue operations on land or water.

The bill goes on to limit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by private persons as well:

14354.  (a) A person or entity, other than a public agency subject to Section 14350 or a person or entity under contract to a public agency, for the purpose of that contract, shall not use an unmanned aircraft system, or contract for the use of an unmanned aircraft system, for the purpose of surveillance of another person without that person’s consent.

In other states where varying anti-drone bills are introudced, hobbyists of first person viewer (FPV) unmanned aircraft have voiced concern in online forums over infringements on their rights. The fear is that requiring the consent of any person being surveilled would make personal use of this technology all but impossible.

Flying a camera to capture a hot air balloon ride would likely include images of houses and backyards, but clearly “the purpose” of that UAV wouldn’t be to spy on those below. AB 1327 requires the consent of the person surveilled only when that is the purpose of the flight operation. It is important to respect the rights of private owners of this technology not only because they have as much protection as anyone else, but also because the public benefits from private drones. Like cameras in the streets watching police, cameras in the skies can also serve as a check on government power.

Alameda County government officials recently requested drones from the Department of Homeland Security. Civil liberties advocates are raising concerns because Oakland, in Alameda County, was where police and Occupy protestors clashed. Local governments want them and the feds want them to have them. The drones are here to stay and it will require action from the people to keep them grounded or at least restricted by due process protecting privacy.

While the bill only limits drone use by state and local government, it will have some serious impact on intended results being pushed by the federal government. At this stage in the ‘drone game,’ the feds are working hard behind the scenes to get states to operate the drones for them.

In fact, the primary engine behind the expansion of drone surveillance being carried out by states and local communities is the Federal government itself. Department of Homeland Security issues large grants to local governments so that those agencies can purchase drones. Those grants, in and of themselves, are an uncosntitutional expansion of power.

The goal? Fund a network of drones around the country and put the operational burden on the states. Once the create a web over the whole country, DHS steps in with requests for ‘information sharing,’” he said. “Bills like these put a dent in this kind of long-term strategy. Without the states and local communities operating the drones today, it’s going to be nearly impossible for DHS plans to – take off.

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