- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2012

Concern over the personal privacy implications of the nation’s inevitable drone boom continues to grow on Capitol Hill.

This week, Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and former judge, will introduce the Preserving American Privacy Act, which sets strict limits on when, and for what purpose, law enforcement agencies and other entities can use unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

Drones are being used on a limited basis by some police and federal departments, but they will be available for commercial and private use in 2015.

This concerns lawmakers and Fourth Amendment advocates who fear that drone use will be abused and that Americans’ privacy rights will be eroded.

“When we see a drone in the air, it should be no surprise to us. Now is the time to start, not 2015,” Mr. Poe said Friday. “With the increased technology of surveillance, Congress has to be proactive in limiting drone use to law enforcement, and also protecting civilians from the private use of drones.”

The measure, which as of Friday had no co-sponsors and is open to changes, would require judicial warrants before any agency could employ a drone. It also restricts the use of UAVs by any state or local entity “except in connection with the investigation of a felony,” the bill reads in part.

But the proposal goes beyond law enforcement and sets a rigid framework for the private use of drones, which are expected to be popular among news agencies, private investigators and others who could benefit from an unmanned eye in the sky.

Mr. Poe’s bill states that no “private person” can surveil another individual without consent.

It’s the latest in a string of proposals from members of Congress worried that drones pose a real threat to liberty.

Rep. Austin Scott, Georgia Republican, last month introduced the Preserving Freedom From Unwarranted Surveillance Act, which would prohibit the federal government from gathering evidence or information related to investigations without a warrant.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and one of the loudest drone critics, has introduced similar legislation in the Senate, with exceptions made when drones are necessary to prevent imminent danger to life or in the event of a terrorist attack.

Lawmakers last week also blasted the Department of Homeland Security for its perceived lack of interest in drones’ national security impact. The department is referring all drone questions to the Federal Aviation Administration, which will issue permits and monitor UAVs in the sky in much the same way it does planes and helicopters. But that oversight deals with air safety issues, not potential terrorist threats.

The Homeland Security Department also has not examined drones’ privacy concerns, analysts say.

“They have not even done a privacy impact assessment,” Amie Stepanovich, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told a House subcommittee Thursday. “They have not even gone in to determine what impact these drones would have on the American public.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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