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Signed into Law: Virginia Puts Permanent Restrictions on Drone Surveillance

RICHMOND, Va. (May 3, 2015) – Two Virginia bills that permanently restrict the use of drones by state and local law enforcement were signed into law by Gov. McAuliffe last week. These bills not only establish important privacy protections at the state level, they also thwart the federal surveillance state.

Virginia was the first state in the U.S. to establish any restrictions on drones when former Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a two year moratorium on the use of unmanned aircraft in 2013.  HB2125 and SB1301  effectively replace that temporary moratorium with permanent restrictions on drone use, an important second step towards ending mass, warrantless surveillance by drones in the state of Virginia.

We originally reported McCauliffe signed the bills in March. But the governor actually sent the legislation back to the Assembly with some suggested amendments. The House and Senate both rejected the governor’s proposals, and he signed both bills as passed on Friday.

The Virginia ACLU told the Augusta Free Press that it was a victory for privacy more than three years in the making.

“This hard won victory comes after three years of close work with a bipartisan group of legislators led by Delegates Ben Cline and Todd Gilbert,” ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said. “The first success came two years ago when Governor McDonnell signed the first in the nation, two-year drone statewide moratorium that gave us time to work together to develop the common sense legislation that Governor McAuliffe signed today.”

HB2125 passed through the state House unanimously by a 100-0 vote, and then passed through the state Senate by a 37-1 vote. SB130 passed through the state Senate by a 21-17 vote, and then passed through the state House unanimously by a 99-0 vote.

These new laws require a “state or local government department, agency, or instrumentality having jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement or regulatory violations,” to obtain a warrant before deploying a drone with only a few exceptions, like Blue and Amber alerts. Weaponized drones are also expressly banned.

OffNow founder and deputy director Michael Boldin said the new law shows how a small first step can lead to bigger victories.

“You should never pass up a slice of bread just because you want a whole loaf,” he said. “One step leads to another. Virginia was the first state in the country to address drone surveillance at all. At the time, nobody was willing to take aggressive steps to put limits on drones. So, legislators and privacy advocates took what they could get at the time. Today we got the loaf – a permanent ban on warrantless drone surveillance.”

Impact on the Federal Surveillance State

Although these laws focus exclusively on state and local drone use and do not apply directly to federal agencies, they 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.

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 sate 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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