The use of drone technology is predicted to explode in the next few years, but current legislation regulating their use says nothing about your privacy. 

Today, the House Criminal Justice Committee is holding a hearing on two bills to regulate the use of drones in Michigan cities and communities (House Bills 4455 and 4456, sponsored by Representative Tom McMillin).

Unlike the large rocket-propelling drones used overseas, domestic drones are small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that carry cameras and are controlled by a human operator. They are used by both the government and private sector for a variety of purposes: from scientific research to agriculture to aiding dangerous police tactical operations.

The tiny helicopters are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has only permitted a small number of domestic law enforcement agencies to operate drones. However, there is increasing pressure from industry and law enforcement to permit domestic drones and expand their use.

Currently, there is a surge of activity in state legislatures across the nation aimed at regulating domestic drone use. The ACLU of Michigan supports House Bills 4455 and 4456, which is based on four key principles that will ensure our 4th Amendment rights are protected.

  • We believe that there should be no mass surveillance. No one should be spied on without a search warrant. Drone use over private property should only happen with probable cause—the same standard used to search someone’s house or business.

  • We believe that drones should not be weaponized. Drones over American soil should not carry weapons. Obviously, right?

  • We believe there should be no shared database of information collected by drones. Information collected by drones should be kept secure and destroyed once it is no longer needed. Information collected by drones for one purpose— perhaps to combat fire or perform a search and rescue—should not be available to law enforcement. 

  • We believe that communities should decide if drones are needed. Communities, not just law enforcement, must play a crucial role in deciding whether to purchase drones. Like any new technology, drone use must be monitored to make sure it’s a wise investment that works.

Drone use creates many privacy concerns that aren't addressed by existing laws, most of which were written back when 'surveillance' was a police officer following the suspect's car. Now, technology like high powered night vision cameras and see-through imaging provide incredible detail and exacerbate privacy issues.

Networking drones with analytics software, face recognition, license plate scanning, and wireless internet could make it possible to easily track specific individuals or vehicles in a way that our laws couldn't have anticipated.

Not only are drones a concern in traditional surveillance use, what's to stop police departments from expanding drone use from surveillance to actual intervention in law enforcement situations on the ground? Airborne technologies could be developed that could, for example, be used to control or dispel protesters, stop a fleeing vehicle, or even deploy weapons.

It's time to make sure our laws are keeping up with these technologies. We all saw Terminator, right? 

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