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California Senate Committee Passes Bill Taking on Drone Surveillance

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (June 24, 2016) – Earlier this week, a California Senate committee passed a bill that would restrict warrantless drone surveillance by state and local law enforcement. If ultimately signed into law, the legislation would not only establish important privacy protections at the state level, it would also help thwart the federal surveillance state.

Assemblyman Bill Quirk introduced Assembly Bill 1820 (AB1820) on Jan. 22. The legislation would prohibit state and local law enforcement from using a drone to conduct surveillance over private property without obtaining a warrant or getting the owner’s express permission in most cases. The bill also includes a blanket prohibition on weaponized drones.

On Tuesday, the Senate Public Safety committee approved the measure 5-2. It now moves on to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration.

The Assembly passed AB1820 by a 43-25 margin last month.

AB1820 allows a few exceptions to the warrant requirement for exigent circumstances. Police could deploy drones with a reasonable belief that an emergency situation exists and the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle is necessary to prevent immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to any person. Law enforcement could also deploy a drone over private property to determine the proper response during a natural disaster.

The bill would require images, footage, or data obtained through the use of an unmanned aircraft system under these provisions to be permanently destroyed within one year with only a few exceptions.

An amendment passed in the Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee added transparency requirements for any law enforcement agency electing to permit another law enforcement agency to use an unmanned aircraft system within its jurisdiction by means of an agreement.

IMPACT ON THE FEDERAL SURVEILLANCE STATE

Although the proposed bills focus exclusively on state and local drone use and does not apply directly to federal agencies, it throws 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 state 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.

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.