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Warrant requirements for police drone use debated

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A tenet of fair information practice principles is that organizations should only collect personally identifiable information for a specified purpose--whether that should translate into a warrant requirement for government use of unmanned aerial vehicles took up large parts of a May 17 House hearing.*

As the Federal Aviation Administration works to meet a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline for establishing regulations for the widespread integration of UAVs into domestic airspace, it should require police departments to limit collection "for particular purposes and discard [video] after it no longer needs it for those particular purposes," said Chris Calabrese, a legislative counsel in the American Civil Liberties Union Washington, D.C., legislative office. He spoke before the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations.

Calabrese said the ACLU endorses legislation (H.R. 637) proposed by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) that would prohibit public sector agencies from flying UAVS without a warrant, subject to exceptions such as border surveillance and emergency situations involving immediate danger.

A requirement for data minimization is vital, Calabrese added. Once "you have examined that person, searched that person or followed the person you're looking for, the case is over, you no longer need it, discard the data," he said.

Not all hearing witnesses believe in a warrant requirement. It would treat drone-gathered information differently from information gathered from existing platforms such as manned aircraft, or even by a police officer on foot patrol, said Gregory McNeal, an associate professor of law at Pepperdine University. "Police are not required to shield their eyes from wrongdoing until they have a warrant, why impose such a requirement on the collection of information by drones?" he asked.

Legislation born of concern about the privacy implications from drone surveillance shouldn't be restricted to drone use by itself, but should address the duration of surveillance, McNeal said. Already the New York Police Department possesses a helicopter with a camera capable of capturing fine-grained detail from a distance of 2 miles, McNeal noted. He suggested that Congress impose time-limit thresholds under which police could surveil an individual without justification, above which police would first have to articulate reasonable suspicion and then receive a warrant to continue it.

* Not all of it. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) wanted to know if it's legal to shoot down a drone over one own's property. His time expired before he could fully press for a definitive answer, although a hearing witness did say that shooting a drone would probably be a very bad idea.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimony and webcast available)

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