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Bill to Stop Mass Drone Surveillance Introduced in Massachusetts

BOSTON (March 15, 2015) – Three Massachusetts representatives introduced a bill that would limit the use of drones by law enforcement in the state and would have a practical impact on the federal surveillance state last week.

Rep. Colleen Garry (D), Rep. Jay Livingston (D) and Rep. Timothy Toomey (D) introduced House Bill 1322 (H.1322) on March 10. The legislation would require state and local law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before deploying a drone in most situations.

Additionally, H.1322 bans weaponized drones, prohibits the use of biometric matching or facial recognition technology except to identify the subject of a warrant, and requires approval of the Secretary of Public Safety before a county or state agency can purchase a drone, or a city council with the secretary’s approval in a city, town or municipality.

The legislation also includes a sweeping ban to protect basic privacy.

Under no circumstances shall unmanned aerial vehicles be used to track, collect or maintain information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, association, organization, corporation, business or partnership or other entity unless such information relates directly to investigation of criminal activity, and there are reasonable grounds to suspect the subject of the information is involved in criminal conduct.

H.1322 does allow law enforcement to use drones for “for purposes unrelated to criminal investigations,” but information gathered cannot be used in any criminal trial, hearing or grand jury proceeding, nor can it be “maintained, shared, or used for any intelligence purpose.” It also allows for drone deployment in an emergency situation with imminent danger to the life or safety of a person.

Even with the exceptions to the warrant requirement, H.1322 would represent a vast improvement over the status quo in Massachusetts – absolutely no restriction on the use of drones.

Impact on the Federal Surveillance State

Although H.1322 focuses exclusively on state and local drone use and does not apply directly federal agencies, the legislation would throw a high hurdle in front of some federal programs.

Much of the funding for drones at the state and local level comes from the federal government, in and of itself a constitutional violation. In return, federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

The federal government encourages and funds a network of drones at the sate and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on drone use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access. The explicit prohibition on information sharing of warrantless information in H.1322 makes this a particularly strong measure to hinder federal information gathering.

The limits on the use of facial recognition also impacts the federal surveillance state. With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program last fall, and the federal government building biometric databases, the fact that the feds can potentially access stored photographs represents a potential dystopian nightmare. By limiting the images obtained and stored by drones at the state and local level, it limits the information available to share with the federal programs.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

Bills like H.1322 make part of a bigger strategy to put and end to government drone surveillance. Each bill introduced, passed, and signed into law creates and builds momentum for other states to do the same.

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