Eyes in the sky: Senate passes the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act

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The Senate passed on Wednesday SB 92 which limits the ability for law enforcement to use unmanned aerial aircraft without first attaining a warrant.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, does permit drones to be used without a warrant in certain conditions, such as when the Department of Homeland Security determines a high risk of a terrorist attack, or if the law enforcement agency has reasonable suspicion that swift action is necessary to prevent imminent danger to life — as in the search for a missing person or to forestall the escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence.

Evidence gathered in violation of the bill will not be considered admissible in criminal prosecutions, and aggrieved parties may initiate civil actions against a law enforcement agency that violates provisions in the law.

According to Senate staff analysis, drones have been utilized as far back as the Vietnam War, although they have gained considerable attention in recent years due to their increasing use and their high capability for gathering military as well as civilian intelligence.

Drones can be equipped with infrared cameras, license plate readers, and laser radars, and can track objects on the ground from altitudes of 20,000 feet. Developments are underway for drones to permit facial or behavioral recognition, adding to an array of concerns that have only started to emerge.

Researchers at the University of Florida have been a part of drone research and development. In addition to other projects, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Research Group has developed a drone called “Nova 2.1” which could be used to gather data helpful to wildlife biologists and others.  Other Florida companies are eagerly pursuing the civilian drone market, making it even more necessary to provide protections and limits for the use of information gathered through these new means.

Other federal developments have further pushed drone/privacy issues into relevance, including the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act requiring the FAA to open the nation’s airspace to drones by late 2015. The FAA has delayed implementing test sites, and has cited concerns with “privacy issues” as drones integrate into the airspace.

Nevertheless, various law enforcement agencies in Florida have been authorized to begin testing the use of drones, including in Polk and Miami-Dade Counties, and several Chiefs of Police have suggested that the use of drones could reduce risks to officers and citizens, and could aid police in their ability to search for persons.

This bill, and its companion — HB 119 by Rep. Ritch Workman — provide guidelines in which these drones and the information they collect may be used.  With privacy protections in place, the use of these technologies hold promise. HB 119 is currently on 2nd reading in the House.