Drones over Florida? Part 1: state legislators aim to protect privacy

02/21/13 Janelle Irwin & Seán Kinane
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Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are already being used in Florida -- and more may be coming. Last week the Federal Aviation Authority announced it is looking for six places to test unmanned aircraft. And Florida could be on that list. So we decided to take an in-depth look at how drones are being used in Florida – and how they might be used in the future. In this first part of a series we examine how some Florida lawmakers, like Senator Jeff Brandes, are trying to make sure the billion dollar industry doesn’t stomp all over Floridians’ privacy rights.

“And we should not live in a state of fear that without our knowledge these drones are going to circle over our heads. Many of them you can’t hear, at night you can’t see. And so, do Floridians have a reasonable expectation of privacy from that type of intrusion?”

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, co-introduced a bill in the Senate that would severely limit how the flying technology is used. The bill specifically targets law enforcement and would prohibit them from using drones without a warrant.

“That to the extent that these drones are used, that they be used for situations which a warrant is already authorized and issued for, that they’re used by the federal government in incidents of a terrorist attack or anything that reaches that level of high scrutiny.”

According to documents made public by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, only three law enforcement agencies in Florida have permission to use unmanned aircraft. A certificate of authorization from the FAA shows the Polk County Sheriff’s Office received approval in 2009. But Kari Eleazor, a spokesperson for that agency, told WMNF they changed their minds. Eleazor would not allow a recorded interview, but said the Sheriff’s Office determined drones did not meet their needs. In the FAA’s certificate of authorization for drone use issued in January 2011 to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the section called “operations authorized” has been redacted. But Jeff Williamson, a spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff, said even though the agency has preliminary approval to test drones, it hasn’t gotten clearance to use them in real situations. But no one from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office would agree to a recorded interview. That leaves the Miami-Dade Police Department. The FAA gave it clearance to fly unmanned aircraft in 2009 and that authorization has been regularly renewed and is valid until December 2014. But Aviel Sanchez, the lieutenant in charge of the aviation department, said they have never had to use one.

“We’ve deployed one time in a barricaded subject scenario and the person was able – he was successfully taken into custody before we actually flew the micro air vehicle. So, we actually have deployed once, but have yet to actually fly it in a scene.”

The drones bill filed in both chambers of the Florida legislature has bi-partisan support so far. Two committees in the Senate have passed it unanimously. The Miami-Dade Police Department is watching the measure closely because it could make using its drone a little more difficult. Sanchez said the bill, as it’s written, doesn’t protect Floridians any more than FAA safeguards that are already in place.

“We have to have some flexibility in that with any other tool that we have, if you’re carrying this tool and you need to use it during a situation, some of those hurdles as far as needing a search warrant or when and how you can deploy this are of concern because you want to make sure that they don’t necessarily counter any efforts towards public safety.”

According to the authorization certificate from the FAA to the Miami-Dade Police Department, their drone can fly no higher than 400 feet above the ground. It also has to be within direct sight of a trained observer from the police department and operators have to be licensed pilots. But that is exactly why legislators are trying to put regulations in place that will protect Floridians from expanded use of the unarmed aircraft.

“The FAA guidelines are designed to ensure the safety of the airspace – to ensure that you don’t have planes and other individuals running into each other, using the same airspace. It’s a safety issue.”

That’s Professor Charles Rose, director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. He said that means the FAA is not looking out for privacy – even if some of their safety regulations seem to accomplish that.

“If we want that sort of protection, we’re going to have to have statutes that guarantee it on a state-by-state basis.”

If that doesn’t happen, Rose says

“The de facto position is going to be less privacy and that’s a choice that’s going to need to be made at both the federal and the state level. And my guess is that the choice will be made in favor of security and law enforcement and not in favor of individual protection of privacy.”

The drones bill in the state Senate is now in the Judiciary Committee. A similar bill in the House unanimously passed the Criminal Justice Subcommittee this month and is now in the Local and Federal Affairs Committee.

In the next installment in our series on drones, we’ll review constitutionality issues and look at a proposal in Congress to regulate domestic drone use.

Orange County Certificate of Approval for drone Use by

FAA certificate of authorization for drone use in Miami-Dade county by Janelle Irwin

FAA approval for drone use in Polk County by

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