State Lawmakers Struggle With Domestic Drones And Privacy Safeguards

Drone replica displayed last February in Alameda County. PHOTO/Shane Bond

ASSEMBLY//DRONES/PRIVACY | As two high-profile drone bills sit in Assemby, members of its Public Safety Committee continue to grapple with the rapidly changing growth and privacy implication that stems from the potential use of public and private unmanned aerial systems, better known as drones.

At a hearing Tuesday in Sacramento, the issue of the affordability of domestic drones coupled with steep advances in imaging have made it difficult for legislators to keep pace with sufficient laws and regulations.

“I’m very concerned,” said Hayward Assemblymember Bill Quirk, who acknowledged domestic drones could help keep residents safe, “but, if not regulated, pose great invasions of privacy.” During the special hearing on the implications and oversight of domestic drones in the state, Quirk was among lawmakers who questioned the potential for infringement of citizen’s privacy.

Quirk had greater concern for domestic drones use by paparazzi and law enforcement, than some private uses of aerial systems for agriculture uses and geological studies. “You can get a system that looks at a large part of a city,” said Quirk. “Do we allow an officer to have a reasonable suspicion and fly over any time?“ he asked. “Do they need a warrant?”

Two bills aim to clarify laws regarding to domestic drones. A senate bill authored by Southern California State Sen. Alex Padilla would make it illegal to spy on people using domestic drones and required police to obtain a search warrant before deploying them. The legislation has been framed by some as a response to the potential use of drones by Hollywood paparazzi.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration has made the commercial use of domestic drones illegal until 2015. In the meantime, law enforcement entities around the state have begun to apply for permits authorizing their use after the moratorium ends. Padilla’s bill passed the State Senate earlier this year and currently sits in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

Another drone bill authored by Assemblymembers Jeff Gorell and Steven Bradford hopes to accomplish many of the same restrictions as the Padilla bill, but also looks to help Southland drone businesses flourish. Some estimates see the aerial unmanned vehicle industry as a potential $2 billion a year business. A related bill offered by Gorell would also carve out income tax breaks to state drone contractors.

Linda Lye, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, says the State Supreme Court already ruled unmanned aerial flights over private homes are illegal. She testified the state’s own Constitution clearly lays out the right to privacy. “Drones can enable the government to gather comprehensive information about when, where and how we conduct our business,” she said.

Lye, who has also spoken out in Alameda County against a plan by the sheriff to purchase two drones last year and a week ago against the Domain Awareness Center in Oakland, refuted criticisms by some in law enforcement that regulations on domestic drone use could curtail its usefulness in fighting crime and search and rescue operations. Instead, she responded the question should be: “Why does law enforcement have unfettered use of technology they never used before?”

Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean told the Assembly committee, he and others in law enforcement strongly support privacy regulations on how domestic drones are deployed, but added wide swaths of back country in his county make proving probable cause in such expanses difficult to combat, what he says, are violent drug cartels flowing from Mexico. When asked by a committee member whether he can envision fitting domestic drones with weaponry, he said, “I can t imagine ever wanting to add a weapons system on one. I wouldn’t even want one on a helicopter.”

Earlier in the hearing a professor of engineering at U.C. Merced testified domestic drones are prone to crashes. The criticism is often lodged by proponents of domestic drones. “We always lose to gravity,” said Dr. YangQuan Chen. “It’s not if, but when it will crash.” However, later, Sheriff Dean demonstrated a crash of a 12-pound drone is equal to that of a small stack of papers hitting a table.

San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the chair of the committee, took a more pragmatic view of the quick rise of domestic drones, their potential misuse and those who may seek ways to nullify its coming ubiquity. “If there are people who want it for nefarious reasons or not,” Ammiano said, “there’s the possibility they can also create something that disables it.”

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