Stop worrying, learn to love drones *

Writing for the Brookings Institution, drone policy expert Gregory McNeal has published a report urging Congress and state legislatures not to overreact when it comes to privacy concerns over drones. McNeal argues, and we agree, that a “technology-centric” approach to legislating privacy protections is misguided, and ends up missing the point:

[Various] legislative efforts have been aimed at restricting the government’s use of drone technology, while largely allowing the government to conduct identical surveillance when not using drone technology. This absurd anachronism is intentional, as privacy advocates have explicitly chosen to capitalize on the public interest and attention associated with the demonization of drone technology as a way to achieve legislative victories. These advocates are admittedly not focused on more sensible legislation that addresses harms irrespective of the technology used.

He notes that current unmanned systems are actually not as effective at surveillance as manned aircraft (which consistent with a point that we have previously made, here). He also points out that banning law enforcement from using drones, in the absence of a warrant, leads to absurd results. For example, using drones to monitor the Boston Marathon – a public event – might benefit public safety. But the law doesn’t allow the Boston PD to do so unless it obtains a warrant by demonstrating probable cause in an application:

That application would need to define with particularity the place to be searched or the persons to be surveilled. All of this would be required to observe people gathered in a public place, merely because the observation was taking place from a drone, rather than from an officer on a rooftop or in a helicopter. In a circumstance like a marathon, this probable cause showing will be difficult for the police to satisfy. After all, if the police knew who in the crowd was a potential bomber, they would arrest those individuals.

Even more absurd is that

in the states where drones have been banned (unless accompanied by a warrant), the police have not been prohibited from using any other type of surveillance equipment—just drones. This technology-centric approach has done little to protect privacy, but will certainly harm public safety, depriving law enforcement of a tool that they could use to protect people.

After reviewing a series of court opinions governing the current state of aerial surveillance, McNeal goes on to provide some recommendations for how legislatures should think about their approaches to drone surveillance regulations. Read the whole thing.

*In what seems like a reference to “Dr. Strangelove,” arstechnica distills the message to “stop worrying, learn to love drones.”

Connecticut Lawmakers Consider Drone Rules

Today we have links to a couple of local reports on a hearing before Connecticut lawmakers regarding the creation of possible drone rules.

Both reports feature a demonstration by Peter Sachs, who continues to do yeoman’s work on behalf of small drone operators.  An excerpt of Peter’s testimony can be viewed here.

As usual, the media emphasizes privacy concerns while saying next to nothing about the wide range of proven and potential benefits of this technology.  We have unfortunately come to expect this kind of willful ignorance from reporters.

Some legislators fare no better.  Consider the comment from State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, who said, “We had one incident in New Jersey where somebody shot down their neighbor’s drone because he was using the drone to harass the neighbor.”

With all due respect, ma’am, we have seen no report suggesting that the operator was harassing anybody.  Please, learn the facts before you cast your vote on anything pertaining to this issue (or any other issue, for that matter).

Stupidity aside, the Connecticut legislature appears ready to abstain from instituting a moratorium on drone use.

North Carolina House passes drone bill

It’s not clear from the report whether this measure is just intended to regulate line-of-sight, model-type aircraft, but that seems to be a reasonable supposition:

Under the legislation, drone operators would have to be 18, pass a knowledge and skills test (still to be developed) and require a license for commercial use. Once the FAA permits commercial use, it still wouldn’t be allowed in North Carolina until the Department of Transportation implements testing and licensing or until May 31, 2015, whichever comes first.

The reporter seems confused about the FAA’s “ban on commercial use.” I will post an update on this after getting clarification.

UPDATE: The bill is posted online, here.

This appears to cover every type of unmanned aircraft that is not a model aircraft. In a normal world in which the FAA had promulgated timely regulations, this might be regarded, at least in part, as an unconstitutional usurpation of federal regulatory authority. My guess is that the NC legislature has grown weary of waiting on the FAA.

Stay tuned.