- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2013

States already have begun to tackle the sticky issue of drones and their effect on personal privacy.

Eventually, courts will step in and have their say on the matter, determining how the unmanned aircraft fit into existing expectation of privacy standards and limits on government surveillance.

But members of Congress from both parties believe it’s important, perhaps vital, for federal lawmakers to also get ahead of the issue before drones become commonplace in American skies.

Congress, in the area of drones, needs to set the standards rather than let the courts, down the road, set the standards,” said Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican and author of one of several pieces of drone privacy legislation, none of which have been passed. He made the comments at a Friday morning House Judiciary subcommittee crime, terrorism, homeland security investigations hearing on the subject.

Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, said that drones are such a game-changer on the technological front that the Fourth Amendment — which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures — isn’t enough.

“This is a prime example of technology overtaking established law, and I think we’re going to have to go beyond the Fourth Amendment,” he said. “There are going to have to be a body of statutes that go into some of this in detail.”

Drones are currently used only by the military, a handful of police and sheriff’s departments across the country, by the federal government to monitor its borders and for research and development purposes.

The use of drones, especially by police, will increase dramatically in the coming years as the technology becomes cheaper and easier to use, offering authorities major advantages over airplanes or helicopters.

Privacy experts say that, while laws already exist to prevent spying through bedroom windows or mass, unwarranted, constant surveillance by police, more needs to be done. It’s similar, they say, to how other types of privacy expectations and laws became out of date with the rise of the Internet, email, cell phones and other advances.

“Because of the technology now available, comparing a drone to a traditional aircraft such as a plane or helicopter is like comparing a frisk from a police officer to a modern X-ray machine,” said Tracey Maclin, a professor at Boston University’s School of Law, who testified at Friday’s hearing.

States such as Virginia, Idaho, Florida and others are placing their own limits on how drones can be used, including by police departments. But the state and local approach is leading to a patchwork of laws across the country, and there’s a growing push for Congress to at least set a basic set of standards, which states could then build off of if they so choose.

Lawmakers Friday indicated the issue could be dealt with in a bipartisan manner.

“I think there’s a lot of room for agreement on both sides … I think we agree on a great deal on this area,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican.