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New York Bills Would Place Limits on Drones; Hinder Federal Surveillance Program

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ALBANY, N.Y. (Jan. 13, 2017) – Bills introduced in the New York legislature would limit the warrantless use of surveillance drones. The legislation would not only establish important privacy protections at the state level, it would also help thwart the federal surveillance state.

A bipartisan coalition of six representatives introduced Assembly Bill 901 (A901) on Jan. 9. Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Oyster Bay) introduced the companion bill (S1174) on Jan. 6.

The legislation would require a warrant for drone surveillance in most situations.

No law enforcement agency or a state, county or municipal agency shall use a drone or other unmanned aircraft to gather, store or collect evidence of any type, including audio or video recordings, or both, or other information pertaining to criminal conduct or conduct in violation of a statute or regulation except to the extent specifically authorized in a valid search warrant; provided, however, that the use of a drone by a law enforcement agency or a state, county or municipal agency is not prohibited when exigent circumstances exist.

The bills do allow some exceptions to the warrant requirement, including to patrol national borders to enforce immigration law, or to counter the high risk of a terrorist attack.

Any evidence collected or derived from information gathered in violation of the law would be inadmissible in court.

Impact on the Federal Surveillance State

Although the proposed law would only apply to state and local drone use, 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.

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A901 was referred to the Assembly Governmental Operations Committee. S1174 was referred to the Senate Codes Committee. The bills will have to pass their respective committees by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.