- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2013

As the Obama administration rolls out plans to permit increased domestic use of drone aircraft, Virginia is among several states looking to pass local restrictions aimed at protecting residents’ privacy against the unmanned aerial vehicles.

Virginia Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah Republican, is sponsoring legislation in this year’s General Assembly session that would regulate drone use by state and local law enforcement and bar warrantless surveillance when local officials begin implementing drones.

His proposal has drawn strong endorsements from liberal and conservative groups and some bipartisan support from lawmakers who say the state should wade carefully into the issue.

“We certainly want to get ahead of that curve before there are some abuses of that information they can gather with that technology,” Mr. Gilbert told WTVR-TV in Richmond last week.

The federal government has notably used armed drones for aerial attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. It currently employs domestic, unarmed drones to monitor the United States’ southern border and has plans to begin granting personal and commercial drone permits in 2015.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which estimates there could be as many as 30,000 drones in U.S. skies by 2020, has already permitted a handful of local police agencies to use the aircraft to survey crime scenes, assist in search-and-rescue missions and for training exercises. None of the agencies are located in Virginia.

Supporters say domestic drones will give law enforcement agencies a less expensive, more agile, less manpower-intensive alternative to traditional police helicopters.

In a radio interview last year, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, called drones a “great” technological advancement that could help fight crime and provide other benefits such as helping to spot traffic jams.

“If you’re keeping police officers safe, making it more productive and saving money it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” he told WTOP-FM radio.

But critics worry that drones might give way to an era of police intrusion, and efforts are ongoing in states including Florida, Maine, Nebraska and North Dakota to restrict their potential use by police to collect evidence and information on private citizens.

In Virginia, Mr. Gilbert’s bill would require any law enforcement agency in the state to receive assembly approval before acquiring a drone and then get a warrant before deploying them in non-emergency situations.

The bill was drafted with help from the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter and has earned the blessing of the Virginia Tea Party Federation, but some critics say its restrictions are too light and that there is no place for the use of police drones in American skies.

John W. Whitehead, president of the libertarian Rutherford Institute, has called on states to ban the use of drone-collected data in criminal proceedings and has also raised concerns that they could be used to disperse crowds and stifle free speech by administering tear gas.

“Think of yourself as a chicken in a cage being watched; it’s not a very good view of the future,” Mr. Whitehead said. “If they’d have had drones in 1963 in Birmingham, they wouldn’t have had a civil rights movement.”

Some law enforcement officials are resisting legislation to restrict drone usage, saying that they are open to discussing a regulatory framework for the devices but do not want to rush into passing restrictions that could hinder efforts to increase public safety.

FAA officials said they are aware of the privacy concerns and are working to address them.

“We take privacy concerns very seriously, and look forward to working with other federal agencies and stakeholders to address these issues,” an agency official said in an email.

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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