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Signed into Law: Florida Bill Expands Limits on Drone Surveillance

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (May 14, 2015) –  Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed signed a bill into law today that takes a second step against mass surveillance, expanding current limitations on the use of drones in the Sunshine State that will 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.

Today, the Florida built on that foundation and established tougher controls over law enforcement use of drones when Gov. Scott inked his name on Senate Bill 766 (SB766).

Sen. Dorothy Hukill (R-Port Orange) introduced the legislation in February. The new law expands the current 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 Florida House unanimously passed the bill 117-0. The Senate approved the measure 37-2.

OffNow founder and deputy director Michael Boldin said passage of SB766 provides a blueprint for building on past victories.

“One step leads to another. Florida was one of the first to address drone surveillance in a meaningful way. That actually paved the way in other states,” he said. “It also laid a foundation to build on. Today, Florida has some of the strongest limits on drones in the country. Now other that have existing laws on drones can look at what Florida did and push the ball forward there – expanding privacy protections a step at a time.”

The new limits on drone use apply to state and local law enforcement, as well as other state or local agencies and private individuals with a few exceptions. Law enforcement can use a drone with an imaging device under the same conditions as it can currently conduct general surveillance. This includes with a warrant, to counter a high risk of terrorism, or if there exists an imminent danger to life or property.

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.

SB766 provides both civil and punitive remedies against anyone guilty of violating these sections.

Impact on the federal surveillance state

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.

SB766 makes up 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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