by Nadia Kayyali, Constitution Campaign

This week, Bill of Rights Defense Committee is releasing model drone legislation to assist local communities and states in the growing battle against domestic surveillance drones. BORDC worked with the organizers across the country  who have been leading the opposition against rushed drone proliferation. The American Friends Service CommitteeAlameda County Against Drones, the No Drones Network,  and the Tenth Amendment Center all consulted on the language.

In response to the diversity of grassroots organizing efforts currently taking place, there are two models of the legislation. One creates a drone free zone, meaning it completely prohibits the use of drones over a city or county to the extent legally permissible. The other strictly limits the use of drones to specific situations. Both of the models contain significant explanations of why unregulated drone proliferation and use is so deeply concerning.  They also contain policy statements urging action at the state and federal level to restrict drone use.

The regulated use of drones model allows law enforcement to use drones only when they have obtained a warrant from a judge and they certify that drones are the least expensive and best option. It would also allow non-law enforcement missions, including search and rescue, fire response and prevention, and hazardous material spills but the language ensures that these exceptions will be strictly regulated.  Additionally, there are very strict auditing requirements and regulations on the use and destruction of data obtained via drones.  Portions of this model were contributed by civil rights lawyer David Frankel, representing a grassroots coalition called Aligning for Responsible Droning (“ARD”).

The need for action on drones right now is clear. As the prefatory clauses of the model legislation emphasize, drones have the potential to introduce ambient and persistent surveillance, meaning surveillance could be everywhere at all times and impossible to avoid. That’s because the drone technology ensures that specific and limited surveillance is impossible. When strict regulations are not imposed, drones can potentially catch images of everyday activity on their way to and from specific missions and law enforcement can use that information in any way they want. There is little incentive for law enforcement not to exploit this ability. What’s worse is that drone use will exacerbate the targeting of vulnerable groups by law enforcement.  Biased policing through the local enforcement of federal immigration laws, arrests for low level victimless crimes and racial and religious profiling will inevitably increase.

Because of the major concerns around domestic surveillance drones, activists and community leaders across the country have  begun to put the halt on unimpeded drone proliferation. Legislatures in at least 31 states have introduced measures to regulate, limit, or prohibit the use of drones for domestic surveillance. However, not all of the legislation has had the chance to get to a vote, and many of these bills contain significant loopholes. That is why action at the local level is opportune. Recently, Charlottesville, VA, became the first city to pass a resolution imposing a moratorium on drones, and called on state officials to implement a statewide moratorium.  Just this month, St. Bonaficius, MN, followed suit,outlawing the use of drones for up to 400 feet above the city. Similarly, as the result of the advocacy of the group Alameda County Against Drones the Public Protection Committee of the Alameda County Board of Representatives held apacked public hearing around Sheriff Greg Ahern’s purchase of a surveillance drone.

The surge in organizing around the domestic use of drones  has dovetailed with growing concern at the national level over the use of drones for so-called “targeted killings” overseas. Last year, in December 2012, representatives of various groups around the country created the Network to Stop Drone Surveillance and Warfare (NSDSW), a “nationwide grassroots network to stop drone surveillance and warfare.” The group’s national month of action in April has kicked off with demonstrations across the country, and has already helped increase awareness of the issues around domestic and foreign drone use. Joe Scarry of the No Drones Network and NSDSW, notes:

Starting with the protest at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada at the end of March, events and actions have taken place so far in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Fayetteville, Ft. Wayne, Dayton, Chicago, Janesville, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and San Diego, and dozens more are planned throughout the month.

The month of action highlights three sets of institutions that encourage the proliferation of drone technology; drone manufacturers, colleges and universities conducting drone research, and military bases involved in operating drones.

Not content to rest with killing thousands of civilians overseas, the drone industy is seeking to expand their market by spying on Americans at home, and they have spent millions of dollars to lobby Congress to that effect. Drone manufacturers and their representatives have made it plain that they are willing to go to any length to ensure widespread adoption of their military technology. As demonstrated by the presence of a drone caucus in congress, elected officials are listening to them.

The good news, however, is that the time is ripe for local organizing. The drone lobby is far weaker in cities or counties, where BORDC’s model legislation is intended to be used. The models are organizing tools, and BORDC encourages local grassroots groups to edit and customize them as needed. With the availability of both models, as well as myriad resources in an annotated version of the legislation , these models can be used anywhere by anyone, including organizers without a legal or technical background.

BORDC is also available to consult on organizing campaigns. You can contact us at organizing [at] bordc [dot] org. Review our model legislation today, and join us in saying no to drone surveillance in your community!

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