BOSTON, Mass. (May 23, 2017) – A bill introduced in the Massachusetts Senate would limit the warrantless use of surveillance drones. The legislation would not only establish important privacy protections at the state level, it would also help thwart the federal surveillance state.
Sen. Michael Moore (D-Shrewsbury), along with a bipartisan pair of cosponsors, introduced Senate Bill 1348 (S1348) earlier this year. The legislation would prohibit the use of drones in criminal investigations without a warrant in most situations.
The bill includes an exception to the warrant requirement in the event of an emergency “when there is reasonable cause to believe that a threat to the life or safety of a person is imminent.” If used in an emergency situation, law enforcement would be required to file an affidavit describing the grounds for the emergency access within 48 hours.
Under S1348, government agencies would be allowed to use drones for “purposes unrelated to criminal investigation or law enforcement purposes.” Information gathered in these situations could not be introduced in a criminal trail, hearing or grand jury proceeding, and could not be maintained, shared, or used for any “intelligence purpose.”
S1348 includes a blanket prohibition on weaponized drones.
The legislation also places restrictions on data retention and sharing. Police would be required to destroy any information incidentally collected on areas or individuals not named in the warrant within 24 hours.
Any information collected in violation of the law would be inadmissible in any judicial, regulatory, or over government proceeding.
Impact on the Federal Surveillance State
Although the proposed law would only apply to state and local drone use, it throws a high hurdle in front of some federal programs.
Much of the funding for drones at the state and local level comes from the federal government, in and of itself a constitutional violation. In return, federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.
According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.
The federal government encourages and funds a network of drones at the state and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on drone use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.
In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.
S1348 was referred to the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.