The North Dakota state House has passed a bill (HB1373) on to the state Senate which would require that law enforcement obtain a warrant to use a surveillance drone as part of a criminal investigation. The bill passed the House despite hostility from the law enforcement community one legislator describing proponents of the bill as “anti-law enforcement” and members of the “black helicopter crowd” during the floor debate.
I actually debated a member of the North Dakota Peace Officer’s Association on the Jay Thomas Show last month, and he claimed that warrants for drones weren’t necessary because cops can already fly over your house with helicopters and airplanes and take pictures. So what’s the big deal, they ask?
Well, the big deal (aside from the fact that, if helicopters and drones were truly equal, why are law enforcement agencies so hot on drones?) is that these unmanned aerial vehicles can do a lot more than helicopters and airplanes, such as be equipped with the ability to detect who is and is not carrying a firearm and to snoop on communications. Declan McCullagh writes that the feds are already using that sort of equipment domestically:
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has customized its Predator drones, originally built for overseas military operations, to carry out at-home surveillance tasks that have civil libertarians worried: identifying civilians carrying guns and tracking their cell phones, government documents show.
The documents provide more details about the surveillance capabilities of the department’s unmanned Predator B drones, which are primarily used to patrol the United States’ northern and southern borders but have been pressed into service on behalf of a growing number of law enforcement agencies including the FBI, the Secret Service, the Texas Rangers, and local police.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think law enforcement should have to get a warrant before using this sort of technology on private citizens. There’s not much the North Dakota legislature can do about the federal use of drones, but certainly if state law enforcement is going to have access to this sort of technology in the future we need laws in place to ensure appropriate, constitutional use.