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Editorial: New drone laws a step forward for privacy

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 01, 2014 5:00 AM

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Compared with the government’s absolute disregard for our cherished freedoms we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about since the Edward Snowden leaks, recent news about civil liberties regarding privacy has actually been surprisingly good.

Just last week, the Supreme Court announced that in order to search one’s mobile phone, law-enforcement officials must first obtain a search warrant. Also effective today, a new Iowa law bans the use of drones for enforcing traffic laws and requires that any information a drone collects can only be used against a person in court if it was obtained with a search warrant.

In the past, we have recommended that state and national policymakers take steps to further regulate drones, and we’ve noted that excessive surveillance seriously threatens trust in government. Consistent with past editorials, we applaud Iowa lawmakers’ efforts to regulate drones, an extremely powerful but potentially invasive technology.

To be clear, drones can be of virtually any size, from a zeppelin to a jet plane to a little toy helicopter you could buy at a RadioShack. Drones used by domestic law enforcement would let users observe the area around them, and they do not resemble their weaponized counterparts, frequently deployed across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa by the U.S. government.

One of the big attractions of using drones is that they are substantially cheaper than manned aircraft. A 2013 report on drones from the U.S. Department of Justice offers an example: “One local law-enforcement agency has estimated the cost of using a [unmanned aerial system] at just $25 per hour compared with $650 per hour for a manned aircraft.” Although the cost reduction may not always be that much, it highlights the ease with which drone technology could proliferate, vastly expanding the power of law-enforcement agencies.

Domestic government-operated drones are used for monitoring the U.S.-Mexico border, carrying out instruction and research at universities, and fighting wildfires. Some police departments have experimented with and speculated about their use in recent years, such as police in Ogden, Utah, who in 2011 disturbingly said a drone in the form of a blimp “will be a deterrent to crime when it is out and about,” implying a sort of perpetual surveillance.

Iowa law-enforcement officials have also looked into obtaining drones, as emails obtained by the Des Moines Register in April 2013 show, though the tone was much less explicitly nefarious than that of officials in Utah.

Nevertheless, there remains the potential for the great power that comes with drones to be abused. As we’ve seen time and again, plenty of law-enforcement officials have taken their powers too far: pepper spraying a row of peaceful Occupy Wall Street protesters in the face, detaining Muslim Americans at border crossings in inhumane conditions for hours on end without explanation, spying on political activists, and engaging in a number of other heinous abuses.

Call it what you want. Whether it’s a few rotten apples or a systemic problem, some U.S. law-enforcement officials often disregard the rights of the citizens they serve.

None of this is to say drones have no legitimate uses. They can be invaluable in search-and-rescue operations, responding to and combating natural disasters, and assisting with major tactical operations.

Putting the focus back onto the more realistic, despite past and potential future use of drones in the Middle East and the fear of their use in the United States brings, as a matter of protecting privacy, the new law is a big win for Iowans. Even without onboard weapons, drones used to monitor civilian activity — on or off the road — is overkill when one considers the technology’s ability to target from long distances. Unmanned aircrafts certainly have the potential to aid police or other emergency responders in dangerous situations, but the new law will help keep privacy in check. It seems that protection of our rights remains somewhat existent — at least for the time being. 

Iowa policymakers have taken an admirable first step to regulate how the police may use drones, but there is still plenty of work to be done. To minimize abuse, more regulations and additional transparency on how the law-enforcement community uses drones will be absolutely necessary.

For now, though, we can take solace in the fact that the Fourth Amendment (requiring a warrant for lawful search and seizure), although curtailed by some of the NSA’s recent activities, is not nearly as dead as pundits have speculated.


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