Grand Forks Herald Flip Flops On Drone Privacy Concerns

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“Despite a burgeoning national movement that’s resulting in proposals to protect individual privacy from coast to coast, too few police officers in North Dakota seem to take seriously the privacy concerns raised by drones,” wrote the Grand Forks Herald editorial board back in January, expressing support for a drone privacy bill before the legislature.

But there has been some push back against that bill coming from the Grand Forks area, which isn’t surprising given that the University of North Dakota is the running to be a site for UAV research. Somebody at UND, a major advertiser with the Herald, must have complained which explains today’s editorial which is a 180 degree reversal from the previous one:

Between the start of the North Dakota House’s debate about the privacy implications of drones and today, something changed.

That something was the Federal Aviation Administration’s Feb. 14 call for applications from facilities that want to become one of six drone test sites around America.

Grand Forks is in the running, and the region’s chances are good. It’s worth local government and business leaders’ best efforts: Being named a test site could well be one of the biggest boosts to the valley’s economy in the region’s entire history.

But here’s the thing: The competition is going to be tough — and a state law that tightly regulates drone use could hurt the Grand Forks area’s chances.

That info comes from the source — namely, the FAA’s “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site Selection” document. The following is from the 69-page document’s Section 9.2.3.1.14:

“Applicants that declare there are no local/state statutes limiting aircraft operations within the proposed Test Site area would be scored highest.”

The North Dakota Senate should keep such provisions in mind as it considers House Bill 1373. A few days ago, the House passed the bill, which requires law enforcement to get a warrant before using drones for surveillance on citizens.

It’s worth remembering that nothing has changed since the Herald’s previous editorial. UND has long been in the running to be a test site for drones. In fact, UND officials testified against the drone bill in House committee for that specific reason.

But I guess the Herald needs an excuse for their shift in position, and they can’t just say “UND told us to change our minds.”

Here’s a question, though: Why should the privacy rights of North Dakota citizens take a back seat to UND’s interests? Since when does UND’s bottom line, and the “economic development” argument trump privacy rights, and prudent limitations on police power?

Keep in mind, the drone bill contains specific language exempting any testing mission at UND from the law. The law is aimed squarely at the use of drones by law enforcement in criminal investigations, and that’s as it should be. The idea that this law could be seen as hurting UND is fear mongering, at best.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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