SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A privacy bill that would regulate the how drones are used in California commercially and by law enforcement passed a committee of the state Senate.
Sponsored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, the bill prohibits weapon-equipped drones, penalizes eavesdropping or spying, and would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before deploying drones in searches.
The use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is becoming more pervasive as the technology becomes more sophisticated and affordable. It is particularly attractive to law enforcement for use in tracking suspected criminals or monitoring public areas. Its commercial uses are even more wide-ranging, with advertisers, farmers and scientists showing increased interest in unmanned aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration projects more than 10,000 active commercial drones flying the U.S. skies by 2030.
Lawmakers raised concerns about the potential for prying at a meeting of the Senate Public Safety Committee on Monday.
“We know the potential for misuse presents direct challenges to privacy and due-process rights for Californians,” Padilla said. “Both public and private operators of drones have a responsibility not to infringe on the rights the property or the privacy of California citizens, and any data, information, photos or recordings of individuals should be minimized.”
Padilla pointed to the April 15 terror attack at the Boston Marathon, which brought a call for the use of drones at public events. “We need look no further than the Boston Marathon to just imagine what someone with nefarious intent could do with technology like this,” he said. “So in the absence of any regulation or regulatory structure, we do need something in place. So this is a start. Privacy protection, no arming of drones, certain parameters for law enforcement to make sure their use of it is transparent and accountable.”
Privacy groups are concerned, however, that the bill does not go far enough to ward off intrusions.
“We’re a little concerned by the warrant standard here which is kind of a circular standard,” Valerie Small Navarro said on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It says a law-enforcement agency should obtain a warrant under circumstances where a warrant is required. We’re suggesting a technology that inherently does not give notice of its presence, inherently is silent, that it raises very serious privacy concerns and those need to be addressed.”
She added: “It’s important to make sure that other government actions are covered by this bill. When we discuss crop dusting or other functions, if information is being gathered, it’s important that this bill covers those functions and also make it clear if law enforcement is choosing to get information from those other government entities that they must meet the warrant standard. The issues of data retention and a use limitation are also very important. If entities are allowed to hang on to the data forever, that poses a problem. We need restrictions.”
Small Navarro said the groups will be working with Padilla on possible amendments. Committee chair Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, praised the effort as “a step forward in uncharted terrain. I think it is needed, and I look forward to seeing it move ahead in the process.”
Padilla replied, “You hit the nail on the head.”
“Ten to 20 years ago, this Legislature, who would have imagined that drones would be something we ought to be think about and be concerned about in the state of California?” he asked. “Whether we like drone technology or not, the fact of the matter is it’s here. The federal government has put us on the direction of facilitating and encouraging their deployment and commercial use.”
Padilla then presented an example of the affordability and ease of using pilotless aircraft, even by private citizens. “For those of us who fly in and out of Sacramento airport, Brookstone has that quad flyer for a couple hundred bucks,” he said. “If I snap my iPhone to it I could do a lot of damage.”
Sen. Steve Knight, Republican committee member from Lancaster, said he supported the bill, but warned that lawmakers will likely be forced to return to the question of privacy issues with drones for many years to come. “Just like with Internet legislation, it changes rapidly,” Knight said. “This is going to change. This is going to be an ongoing discussion for many years in the Legislature.”
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