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Rhode Island Bill Would Place Limits on Drones; Hinder Federal Surveillance Program

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (April 18, 2016) – A bill introduced in the Rhode Island House would restrict the use of drones by state and local law enforcement. The legislation would not only establish important privacy protections at the state level, it would also help thwart the federal surveillance state.

Rep. Blake Filippi introduced House Bill 8066 (H8066) on April 13. The legislation would prohibit state and local law enforcement from gathering evidence or other information with a drone without obtaining a court order in most cases. The bill would also restrict the retention and sharing of information gathered with a drone, and would place a blanket prohibition on weaponizing drones.

H8066 would allow law enforcement agencies to use a drone without a court order to assist a person when “it is reasonable to believe that there is an imminent threat to the life or physical safety.”

The legislation includes strict “probable cause” standards law enforcement would have to meet when applying for a court order to use the drone.

H8066 also includes provisions that would bring the acquisition of drones into the open. It would require a public hearing before an agency could obtain a drone, along with the governor’s approval for state law enforcement and city government approval for local law enforcement. Often, police purchase surveillance technology without the public even knowing. This would greatly increase transparency in Rhode Island drone programs.

A similar bill (S2230) was introduced in the state Senate. A hearing was held in the Judiciary Committee late last month, but it has taken no further action.

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.