As society zooms into the age of the drones, one Utah lawmaker is trying to establish ground rules to regulate government and law-enforcement surveillance of citizens by unmanned aircraft.
"Currently, because this is such new technology, there are no real regulations," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said Thursday. "There are FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] regulations about safety of airborne vehicles, but there’s nothing about privacy related to unmanned aircraft that can collect data and information about citizens."
Stephenson’s SB167 was introduced in the Senate on Thursday. It has yet to be assigned to a committee for public debate.
More than a dozen states have limited drone use to protect citizen rights, according to the Associated Press. New Hampshire’s Legislature had a hearing on two such proposals Thursday and the California state Assembly passed a tough drone-restriction bill on Wednesday.
In some states, law-enforcement agencies have come out in opposition to such regulation. The New Hampshire police chiefs association, for example, opposes legislation there, arguing drone technology could save lives.
No such opposition has materialized yet in Utah, but that may just be because it’s early in the legislative session.
The law enforcement legislative committee, including representatives from police chiefs, sheriffs, the attorney general’s office and other agencies, hasn’t had a chance to examine SB167, said spokesman Ken Wallentine. It likely will take a look at the bill at its Monday meeting.
The drone standards Stephenson wants to see enacted would apply to state and local governments, regulatory agencies and law enforcement.
SB167 would prohibit using drones for gathering information without a warrant except in special circumstances — such as if someone gives written consent, if a person’s life or safety is in danger, or in emergency situations, such as threats to national security, in which a warrant would have been granted if officials had had time to obtain one. In such circumstances, a warrant application would need to be submitted within 48 hours after use.
Information gathered by drones on anything other than the specified target would have to be destroyed within 24 hours, unless the deletion would also erase data related to the operation. Information collected outside of the bill’s guidelines would not be permissible as evidence.
Stephenson said he does not know if any agency in the state is using drones.
Dan Garfield, an organizer of the "Restore the 4th" Utah advocacy group, likes the intent of the bill.
"It sounds like it’s pretty wise to answer these questions now before they’re in use — because they will be used," Garfield said. "People using drones constantly feel they can use drones for things they otherwise wouldn’t do. .... I’m fine with us using drones in situations where it would be OK for us to use a police helicopter."
As important as ensuring proper oversight, Garfield said, is guaranteeing transparency.
SB167 would address that concern by requiring agents who use drones to file yearly reports to the Department of Public Safety, which then would be posted online. These reports would contain the number of times an agent used a drone, the number of criminal investigations aided by using drones, how the drones helped with the investigations, the type and frequency of data collected on people, buildings and other targets and the cost of the drone use.
Information about ongoing investigations could be excluded from public reports but would be publicly disclosed later.
Judges and the attorney general also would be required to submit reports on all drone warrants that they approved, denied or extended during the year.
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