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Florida Bills Attack Warrantless Drone Surveillance

Bills introduced in the Florida House and Senate would expand current limitations on the use of drones in the Sunshine State, and have a practical impact on the federal surveillance state.

In 2013, Florida became one of the first states in the country to pass legislation limiting the use of drones by law enforcement. That law only allows law enforcement agencies to use drones to collect “evidence or information” if they have a warrant, with just a few exceptions. When SB92 passed in April 2013, privacy advocates noted it was a solid first step that legislators could build on in the future.

On Feb. 9, Rep. Larry Metz (R-Groveland) introduced HB649, a bill that would expand and strengthen current limitations on the use of drones in Florida. Two days later, Sen. Dorothy Hukill (R-Port Orange) introduced a companion bill in the state Senate (SB766).

These bills expand the limits on drones by banning any person, state agency, or political subdivision from using unmanned aircraft equipped with imaging devices “to record an image of privately owned or occupied real property or of the owner, tenant, or occupant of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image in violation of such person’s reasonable expectation of privacy without his or her written consent.”

The ban would include state and local law enforcement, as well as other state or local agencies and private individuals. The legislation also includes an expansive definition of “image.”

Image means a record of thermal, infrared, ultraviolet, visible light, or other electromagnetic waves; sound waves; odors; or other physical phenomena which captures conditions existing on or about real property or an individual located on that property.

The bills provide both civil and punitive remedies against anyone guilty of violating these sections.

Impact on the federal surveillance state

Although HB649 and SB766 focus exclusively on state and local drone use and do 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.

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.

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.

Bills like HB649 and SB766 make part of a bigger strategy to put an 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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