SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (May 11, 2016) – In a victory for privacy advocates, an Illinois bill that would have expanded drone surveillance in the state failed in the Senate.

Sen. Antonio Munoz introduced Senate Bill 2588, (SB2588) in February. The legislation would have created another broad exception allowing warantless drone surveillance for “training purposes.”

SB2588 passed out of committee and headed to the Senate floor where it surprising lost by a 23-19 vote. With 16 legislators not voting, the bill failed to garner enough votes for passage.

Illinois enacted the Freedom of Drone Surveillance in 2014. To ensure privacy, this law restricts law enforcement from using a drone for surveillance purposes without a warrant in most cases. The law includes a few exceptions to the warrant requirement, including terrorism, preventing imminent harm or threats to life, locating missing persons, crime scene analysis, and use during a disaster or public health emergency.

Senator Munoz’s bill would expand exceptions  to the warrant requirement to include training missions. Training missions could occur in public lands, areas or highways. It could also include over private property with the owner’s consent. This legislation would have allowed law enforcement to bypass the information retention provisions in the current law by allowing supervisors to retain information past 30 days. Not only that, training data could have also been disclosed to another agency like the FBI or DEA.

This bill may not sound unreasonable at first glance, but the lack of transparency by police departments limits public knowledge of domestic drone training missions on U.S. soil. Drones were born out of the War on Terror, and that is where we must look for now to understand training missions. Training missions in the military simulate war scenarios, and are sometimes used as an excuse to do some recon. So when officials speak of drone training, they are talking about something way beyond pilot school.

Some references:

  • In July of 2015, Russia annexed Crimea. One month later, the US and NATO allies deployed a reconnaissance drone on a training mission over Latvia.
  • After pilot school, intense training for real-world war is drilled in the head of new drone operators.

The problem is that we do not really know what domestic drone training actually encompasses. Training missions for search and rescue or even Amber alerts wouldn’t be problematic. But without more limitations, they could be used for reconnaissance or the execution of other missions that may not be allowed in normal operations.

When it comes to law enforcement use of surveillance technology, we should always err on the side of caution. What we don’t need is a war game in our backyard. If training missions are to be written into law, legislators need to define exactly what they may include, who participates in that training, and limit who can share or view and surveillance data gathered.

Defeat of this broad exception to warrantless drone surveillance in Illinois was a win for privacy.

Kelli Sladick

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