States push new privacy blueprint for drones

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A coalition of state officials is drawing up a uniform blueprint for drone privacy laws in an effort to head off a patchwork of conflicting rules and regulations being adopted across the country.

The model legislation could, theoretically, be used by lawmakers everywhere to put in place a uniform system, as opposed to the state-by-state approach unfolding now.

“I believe we all view privacy as a serious issue that our constituents are concerned about, yet we also see the long-term benefits in the use of unmanned aircraft for carrying out missions that are otherwise dirty, dull or dangerous,” said Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, a Republican who is chairman of the Aerospace States Association, a nonprofit group of public officials, industry leaders and others that advocates for the aerospace and aviation sector.

The association is partnering with the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures “to develop suggested legislation for consideration by the states.”

The groups have reached out to a number of industry organizations, civil liberties and law enforcement groups and other entities for suggestions on how to pen the model legislation, the adoption of which would be entirely voluntary.

Comments are due by June 1.

The blueprints could bring clarification to what’s already a confusing situation, as many states are racing forward on the drone privacy issue.

Idaho and Florida already have laws restricting the use of drones by law enforcement agencies. Virginia has considered similar legislation, though Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell wants police to have access to drones and has amended a bill that would have prohibited it.

Dozens of other states are considering their own drone-related bills, which range from modest restrictions to near-total bans on any use of the craft, including by police or first responders.

Most of those proposals stem from public fear — sometimes bordering on paranoia — about drones, what they can do and how much surveillance average citizens will be under once the craft are fixtures in American skies.

The drone industry is trying to calm the national debate, keenly aware of the fact that many Americans harbor deep concerns about its products, centering around their ability to snoop and their widely reported use in assassinating terrorism suspects in the Middle East.

The sector’s leading trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, praised the efforts of the privacy coalition.

“The unmanned systems industry welcomes this conversation about how best to advance unmanned aircraft technology while safeguarding Americans’ privacy rights,” said association President Michael Toscano. Drones “hold tremendous potential to keep the public safe, create lasting jobs, boost local economies and further advance the U.S. as a leader in technology and innovation.”

It’s the latest step the association has taken to cast itself as a proponent not only of drone technology, but also of the Fourth Amendment and “responsible” personal privacy protections.

Last year, the group adopted a code of conduct, which called on all drone operators, whether they be private businesses, law enforcement agencies or average citizens, to respect the privacy rights of others when piloting their craft.

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