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The Illinois House Judiciary Committee approved legislation restricting civilian use of drones

Restriction on police use of private drones on the horizon

by Matthew L. Schehl
Apr 30, 2014

SPRINGFIELD - In a unanimous vote, a bipartisan bill restricting police use of privately owned drones to conduct surveillance passed the Illinois House Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning.

As an amendment to the "Freedom from Drone Surveillance" Act enacted in January, the bill (SB2937) would prohibit Illinois law enforcement agencies from compelling or contracting private third-party drones to collect information without a warrant.

“We’re looking to apply the protections in the original [FDSA] act to the police use of privately owned drones, so the same requirements for search warrants applies to privately owned drones,” said State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago), the bill’s primary House sponsor.

As a caveat, Williams noted, the owner of a private drone may voluntarily provide information to police, although they would not be able to retain it longer than 30 days without a warrant. Illinois law enforcement agencies would also be able to use drones without a warrant during a disaster or public health emergency.

The increase in drone technology, decrease in size and cost and lack of federal regulation over the last decade have resulted in the rapid proliferation of their use through private companies. Drones are used for a wide range of activities such as aerial photography, fighting wildfires, surveying, and surveillance in private investigations.

Their use has raised concerns, however, that privacy rights could be threatened if government agencies begin adopting their use. The FDSA, passed last year, addressed these concerns, specifying how Illinois agencies can use drones.

“The idea here is to address this proactively and ensure that privacy protections for citizens are in place and to ensure freedom from unnecessary surveillance,” Williams said during the bill’s final hearing last May.

The FDSA does not cover the use of private third party drones by Illinois agencies, presenting a grey area as to whether they can be compelled or contracted by law enforcement agencies.

SB2937, if approved by the House next month, will remove this ambiguity.