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Proposed Illinois law would limit domestic drone use

by Sarah Devin Kaufman
April 24, 2013

Law enforcement agencies can use drones to gather information without a search warrant. A bill pending in the Illinois House would change that.

The Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act, which would require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before using a drone to gather evidence, passed the Illinois Senate 52-1 April 18 and is now being reviewed in the House Rules Committee.

Proposed by Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Skokie), the legislation would ban the use of weapons on drones except in an emergency and would require evidence gathered by a drone to be destroyed unless pertinent to an investigation.

Under the bill drones could be used to find missing persons or to photograph crime scenes on highways or other state property.

Biss said the legislation is a substantive step forward in protecting individual privacy rights. He said the federal government’s deregulation of drone use is an important issue. According to Biss, the fact there is an “extraordinarily modest level” of legislation with provisions for drone use is “on its face problematic.”

“Some people wish the bill went further. Everybody is supportive in that this is the first step,” Biss said.

Some legislators said the successful use of surveillance in the investigation of the Boston marathon bombings could increase public support for domestic drone use.

But what differentiates drones from surveillance cameras is the newness of the technology, especially in a domestic context, said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Surveillance that was used in Boston was part of a fixed, stable system that’s been in place for years, he said.

“One of the things we often see is these technologies are rolled out and implemented, and it isn’t until a few years or months later that people begin to understand the potential for privacy invasions,” Yohnka said.

The purpose of the bill is to protect against privacy invasions before the technology becomes pervasive, Yohnka said. It doesn’t limit the police’s ability to use a drone, it just requires they get a search warrant before using one.

Illinois Rep. David Harris (R-Mount Prospect), a co-sponsor of the bill, said the issue comes down to one of the federal Constitution and the state Constitution giving individuals the guarantee of protection of privacy.

“The use of drones could conceivably capture lots and lots of data and information that could potentially violate those privacy guarantees that we have,” he said.

Arguing for proactive privacy provisions, Harris also pointed to the unfamiliarity of this new technology.

“The domestic use of drones is really just on the cusp of implementation,” he said. “So it’s better to have laws in place at the start of something rather than trying to undo something once they’re already in place.”

Harris said it’s possible that the bill might lose some support after the Boston attacks, because of the effectiveness of surveillance in that investigation. A key surveillance technique used in locating the second suspect was a helicopter with an infrared camera.. He argued, however, the bill would not have limited the use of drones in the Boston marathon investigation. The bill permits drone use in a terrorist attack investigation.

“One could argue drones could’ve been used in Boston, and specifically they can be used to stop a suspect’s escape,” he said.

“I think there are provisions – reasonable and adequate provisions – in the bill for use of drones when they are absolutely necessary. But just to randomly gather tons of information is inappropriate,” Harris said.

Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago), chief sponsor of the bill in the House, said it is a matter of finding a balance between the use of technologies and a person’s right to exist free from surveillance. She said she has received support from representatives of both parties.

“It seems like it’s science fiction but it’s not, it’s real,” she said. “Law enforcement agencies are looking into using drones. Before we move too far down that road, we need to ensure our protections.”