ACLU wants limits on police drones

Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, March 25, 2015

BOSTON — A civil liberties group wants to limit aerial surveillance by police as state law enforcement officials consider the use of drones for crime-fighting.

Like other states, Massachusetts is grappling with an assortment of questions about how to deal with drones, which hold much potential for commercial and private use but raise myriad privacy and security risks.

Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Democrat, proposes banning drones from carrying weapons and wants to require police to get warrants to use unmanned aircraft for investigations.

Legislation filed by Garry allows police to deploy drones in natural disasters, accidents, terrorists attacks and other emergencies, but requires agencies to file a report within 48 hours justifying their use.

Her bill also prohibits police use of facial-recognition software, unless approved by a warrant.

“This is a common-sense proposal that would allow police to use drones for legitimate purposes while protecting privacy,” said Kade Crockford, director of technology and liberty initiatives for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We’re not trying to ban the use of police drones.”

Crockford said concerns about surveillance are increasing as drones become more readily available.

“The cost of surveillance is decreasing while the invasiveness is skyrocketing,” she said.

David Procopio, a spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, said the agency is exploring the use of unmanned drones for search-and-rescue missions, traffic crashes and criminal investigations.

“We believe this technology would be beneficial to law enforcement,” he said. “There’s plenty of situations where flying an unmanned aircraft could help us respond to crash, locate a missing child or even a fleeing suspect.”

Procopio wouldn’t comment on the legislation but said State Police will comply with any new rules.

“We will also be developing our own internal policies as to how they are used,” he said.

The push for regulation comes as the Federal Aviation Administration works on rules for commercial drone use and seeks to limit their flight around airports. The agency has promised to ease its restrictions on companies that want to use drones for business.

Amazon is seeking federal approval for a service to deliver shoebox-size packages to customers faster than other delivery services, using unmanned aerial vehicles about the size of a remote-controlled airplane.

Congress has told the agency it must allow civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by September 2015. The aerospace industry predicts more than 30,000 private and commercial drones will be zooming around the world within two years, with the United States accounting for roughly half of them.

Under current FAA rules, police must get FAA waivers and meet certain requirements to fly a drone: Aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, fly below 400 feet, and keep away from airports.

Driving new restrictions by states are concerns about government surveillance, such as in traffic or at public rallies, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

Many of the 15 states with laws on drone use have restricted government agencies from monitoring citizens. Others restrict civilian use of drones, according to the group’s data.

Louisiana, for example, prohibits using a drone to monitor a person or property without consent. Violators face fines of up to $500 and six months in jail.

New York City is considering a total ban on the use of drones by the government and private enthusiasts.

Ned Merrick, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fraternal Order of Police, one of the state’s largest police unions, said he doubts local departments can afford drones.

Law enforcement models run from as low as $50,000 — roughly the price of a patrol car with standard gear — to more than $300,000 for an aircraft equipped with infrared video, a shotgun or grenade launcher.

“Only the largest agencies will be able to afford this stuff, at least until the price comes down,” Merrick said.

Like other law enforcement officials, Merrick disagrees that using the technology will invade privacy.

“We’re not going to be looking in peoples’ windows,” he said. “In most cases, surveillance would be in public areas, where there’s no expectation of privacy.”