Mass. Bill Putting Limits On Drones Set To Air Before Committee

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Seeking limits on the use of technology by local police forces, lawmakers and civil liberties activists are pushing a bill that would regulate the use of unmanned aircraft by law enforcement and civilians.

“The potential is there for significant infringement of Fourth Amendment rights and privacy rights,” said Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, who described a recent “militarization of our police force.”

Hedlund’s bill, which he said was written by the American Civil Liberties Union, requires a warrant for the use of unmanned aircraft, or drones, in criminal investigations, prohibits data collection of peaceful activity, and bans the use of facial recognition technology except to identify the subject of a warrant.

Drones could be used by government agencies in cases of emergency and for non-law-enforcement purposes, under the bill, which also prohibits drones from carrying weapons.

Eight states — Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — have passed laws regulating drones, as the country takes a keener interest in the eyes in the sky, according to UMass School of Law Associate Prof. Hillary Farber.

“These things are proliferating and there’s more and more interest in them,” said Farber, who said U.S. Sen. Ed Markey has filed a comprehensive bill at the federal level.


Suffolk DA spokesman Jake Wark said if the state wants to regulate the emerging technology, it should take the opportunity to update surveillance laws, such as dropping the requirement that wiretaps must only be used against organized crime, which law enforcement officials say hampers their ability to investigate loosely organized street gangs.

“In the same vein, there's a pressing need for street-level cameras that can provide law enforcement with surveillance images minutes after a crime instead of the hours or days it takes to retrieve footage from commercial establishments,” Wark said in a statement. “We're not opposed to drone use or regulation but, frankly, our most urgent needs are much more down-to-earth.”

The Transportation Committee holds a public hearing on Hedlund’s legislation Wednesday, along with legislation regulating the use of license-plate tracking technology.

According to a story in Ars Technica, a new Utah law limiting license plate data collection by private and public entities triggered a lawsuit by the companies Digital Recognition Network and Vigilant Solutions, arguing the law limited their First Amendment rights.

A bill similar to Hedlund’s filed by Rep. Colleen Garry (D-Dracut) was referred to the Judiciary Committee.

Farber, the UMass professor, said Congress required the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations by September 2015 for the use of drones in navigable airspace — 400 feet off the ground — but the agency only about two months ago selected drone testing sites for use in developing those regulations.

“Many people expect that Congress is going to push that deadline off,” Farber said.

Joint Base Cape Cod is partnered with Griffiss International Airport in northern New York, which was selected by the FAA to run tests. Farber said the FAA has been pushed to insist on privacy restrictions at the testing sites.

Currently, public entities need FAA approval to fly drones in navigable airspace, and 1,500 to 1,600 agencies have applied nationwide, though attempts to uncover the names of those public agencies have been fruitless, Farber said. She said she does not know whether any of the agencies are located in Massachusetts.

Drones have become a major part of the U.S. operations in Afghanistan and a go-to tool for missile attacks targeting individuals across the border in western Pakistan.

Hedlund and Farber both said the unmanned aircraft is very useful for certain tasks, such as searching for a missing person or providing reconnaissance during natural disasters.

Hedlund’s bill would require approval by a city council or other governing body before a drone could be purchased by a local police force, which he said would foster debate. The bill has additional reporting requirements.

Asked if he would favor a drone purchase by the police in his home city of Weymouth, Hedlund said, “I don’t know.”