ATLANTA (May 17, 2016) – Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that would have placed minimal limitations on warrantless drone surveillance in the state.

Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) and a bipartisan coalition of five cosponsors introduced House Bill 779 (HB779) in January. The legislation would have required a warrant before police could engage in drone surveillance in some situations. It would have also banned the use of weaponsized drones. The bill also included provisions that would have limited retention and sharing of data obtained by drones.

HB779 had problematic language from the start. The warrant requirement only applied to “gathering evidence or other information in a private place or of an individual in a private place.” This would have allowed police to track and record people in any public area. This becomes  particularly problematic due to the flexible definition of “private.” In some cases, courts have held anything visible through a window without curtains is considered “public.” The legislation would have left it up to law enforcement to determine what constitutes “private.” In practice, the bill would have required a warrant in only a limited number of situations.

Even these limited restrictions on drone surveillance were too much for Gov. Deal. In his veto message, he claimed the state shouldn’t set any regulations until the FAA promulgates its rules.

“Signing this bill prior to the release of the FAA guidelines would create a layer of state regulation that may be vitiated by future FAA action and would also grow state government by creating a wholly new quasi-legislative body to produce future rules and regulations.”

This is ridiculous on two levels.

First, the FAA will never issue regulations about police surveillance or law enforcement weaponization of drones. This isn’t what the FAA does. Its regulations revolve around controlling air traffic and have zero to do with law enforcement

Second, Deal reveals himself as a federal supremacist with his insistence on waiting for federal action. The federal government should never even have a role in dictating law enforcement activity in Georgia. The responsibility of limiting the action of state and local law enforcement falls directly on state government.  Deals job as governor is to protect the rights of the people in his state. By deferring tor the feds, Deal abrogates his responsibility.

It’s ironic he frets about growing government while simultaneously further empowering a monopoly government in Washington D.C.

In the meantime, police can utilize drones in George with absolutely no limits at all.While the legislation wasn’t as robust as we would hope, it would have been a good first step. Even minimal restrictions on drone surveillance are better than the status quo – police using drones whenever, wherever and however they want. This includes loading them up with lethal weapons.

Impact on the Federal Surveillance State

While legislation like HB799 apply exclusively to state and local drone use and does not apply directly to federal agencies, 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.

Mike Maharrey

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