An Urgent Proposal to Protect People From Domestic Drones

A Rhode Island bill is among the best being considered by state legislatures, according to an ACLU analysis.
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As anxiety about domestic-drone use continues to mount, at least 30 states are weighing new laws that would regulate them. A Rhode Island proposal is among the best, according to Allie Bohm at the ACLU. Unlike her, I haven't read every bill introduced by a state legislature. But I have read the bill the Ocean State is mulling, and many of its provisions deserve wider attention. I'd be thrilled if something with this many civil-liberties protections was actually passed and enforced.

What's to like?

1. Drone-strike free zone: The proposed law states outright that "unmanned aerial vehicles shall not be equipped with weapons."

2. No drone proliferation without representation: Law enforcement would be prohibited from purchasing drones or receiving military hand-me-downs on their own initiative: "Unmanned aerial vehicles shall be acquired only after a public hearing and, for any state law enforcement agency, approval by the governor, and for any municipal law enforcement agency, approval by the city or town council overseeing that agency seeking such acquisition." Put simply, there would be an identifiable elected official to hold accountable.

3. Strict application requirements: To use drones for surveillance purposes, state and local agencies would submit an application to a judge that includes (1) the identity of the person seeking to use a drone; (2) why he or she wants to use a drone, including details about the alleged offense, where the surveillance would take place, and the target; (3) an account of why a less intrusive alternative to drones cannot be used instead; (4) a time-limit on the proposed surveillance; (5) disclosure to the judge if attempts have been made to surveil the same person or location on a prior occasion; (6) and "an affirmation that the unmanned aerial vehicle shall ... collect data only on the designated target ... and shall not use facial recognition or any other biometric matching technology on non-target data."

4. Constraints on when judges can grant permission to use drones: The presiding judge must conclude that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is about to be committed; that there is reason to believe drone surveillance will result in the sought after information; that alternative means of getting the same information have either been tried or are too dangerous to try; and that only information concerning the target is collected.

5. Strict time limits on each grant of permission: Law enforcement would be granted permission to use drones only as long as was necessary to get the sought after information, and for a maximum of 48 hours. Applications are required for extensions.

6. No spying without telling people they were surveillance targets: Within 10 days of the time someone was the target of drone surveillance, they must be served with a report that includes the fact of the spying, the information that was collected, and other details. 

7. A civil remedy for victims of unlawful surveillance: "Any person who is surveilled... in violation of this chapter shall have a civil cause of action" against the spy.

8. A strict prohibition on data retention: This is a key protection:

a) No data collected on an individual... may be used, copied, or disclosed for any purpose. Such data shall be deleted as soon as possible, and in no event later than twenty-four (24) hours after collection. (b) Whenever any state or municipal law enforcement agency... uses an unmanned aerial vehicle, no information acquired and no evidence derived therefrom may be received in evidence in any trial... if the disclosure of that information would be in violation of this chapter.

9. Private contractors can't help police skirt the rules: Except within the dictates of the law described above, "it shall be unlawful for any state or municipal law enforcement agency, or any individual or entity on such agency's behalf, to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle, or to disclose or receive information acquired through the operation."

10. Transparency after the fact: The law would require that an exhaustive report on drone use be submitted to the legislature each March detailing all instances of surveillance in the prior year and the outcome of all the attendant cases.

There's more to the bill, but that's a rough summary of important provisions. As Glenn Greenwald writes, "The use of drones by domestic US law enforcement agencies is growing rapidly, both in terms of numbers and types of usage." Passing protections like these ought to be an urgent priority in every state. The alternative is the virtual certainty of unprecedented surveillance.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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