Nebraska committee startled by drone testimony
By Ben Kreimer
Aerial drones are fun to fly. And that’s a problem in the mind of Nebraska Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus.
“They’re too much fun not to use,” said Schumacher, who proposed The Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, a legislative bill that would prevent drones from landing in the hands of Nebraska law enforcement agencies.
The state Legislature’s Judiciary Committee warmly received the bill, LB412, at a hearing Thursday.
Schumacher presented his bill as a proactive measure to prevent Nebraska law enforcement agencies from using unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, to gather information that could be used against a person in court, except to counter the high risk of a terrorist attack.
Acknowledging the potential positive aspects of drone use, such as for search and rescue operations, Schumacher explicitly left open the possibility for agencies to request future legislatures to grant further exceptions to the bill.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who said he is opposed to “so-called mechanical justice,” firmly supported Schumacher’s bill.
“I’m commending you for bringing this,” Chambers said. “Your bill is dealing with an area where a boundary is indeed needed.”
Schumacher’s drone concern is twofold. First, he recognizes that drones are big business, as can be observed by the research and development of weaponized and surveillance drone technology for American military use overseas. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down, Schumacher doesn’t foresee the drones or their manufacturers and lobbyists disappearing. They will simply start pitching their drones to American law enforcement agencies who, Schumacher says, will be unable to resist the new technology.
His second concern is that once drones are in the hands of American police, they will be used for surveillance in ways that will infringe upon the privacy of citizens.
“The government does not need to have its nose in everybody’s backyard or above everybody’s farm,” Schumacher said. “You have a reasonable expectation of privacy not to be spied on by your local law enforcement or local regulatory agency.”
Amy Miller, the legal director for ACLU Nebraska, supports Schumacher’s bill.
“This (drone use) is not science fiction,” she said.
She added that privacy laws are struggling to keep up with advances in technology. However, Miller then inaccurately told the committee that the Environmental Protection Agency deployed drones for aerial surveillance in Nebraska’s rural areas to monitor water quality near a high concentration of livestock feedlots. A report of the EPA using drones exploded online last year, prompting congressmen from midwestern states to assail the agency. But, the EPA does not use drones anywhere. The flights were with manned aircraft, a practice the Supreme Court said was legal in 1986.
Miller also shared with the committee the low-cost and high-tech side of drones with a provocative description of how crowdfunded TechJect Dragonfly, a hand-size drone with an on-board camera controlled by a smartphone, could spy through house windows.
“This is not technology in a Tom Clancy novel, this is something you can buy off the internet today,” she said, bending the truth, as the Dragonfly is not currently on the market.
Addressing the integration of military drones in American law enforcement agencies, Miller informed the committee of the recent acquisition of a ShadowHawk drone capable of weaponization by the Montgomery County sheriff’s department in Texas.
“This is extremely disturbing,” said Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha.
“I am amazed at what you presented here today,” said Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis in a shocked tone.
Miller urged the committee to see the need for LB412 to protect Nebraskans’ privacy because of the sloth-like development of national drone legislation, and an unlikelihood of the Supreme Court addressing drone privacy law within the next decade.
Schumacher said LB412 bill came out of a question he was asked by one of his constituents: “What are you going to do about the drones?”
The constituent, Schumacher said, brought forth this question based on news that Florida’s Senate is considering their own drone bill, also called the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, that would restrict police from using the airborne technology to gather evidence with some exceptions.
Inspired by Florida’s proposed bill, Schumacher took the name but reworked the exceptions clause, leaving the counterterrorism component intact. Unlike Nebraska’s version, Florida’s bill allows police to obtain a search warrant to authorize drone use.
Florida law enforcement agencies would also receive leeway to deploy a drone without approval if an agency had “reasonable suspicion” that expedient action was needed to prevent human injury, property damage, escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence.
Schumacher intends for his version of the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act to put the Nebraska Legislature in control of Nebraska law enforcement drone deployment and the protection of citizens’ privacy. In the future, he expects the bill’s rigid prohibition on drones to flex with exceptions for particular uses of the technology by law enforcement agencies, as long as the exceptions present no privacy implications.
“I’m not a dogmatist,” Schumacher said. “I’m very practical.”