NC House panel will consider privacy concerns over drones

pgannon@ncinsider.comJanuary 20, 2014 

  • The meeting

    The House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems will meet in Room 1228 of the Legislative Building at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

— A special House committee formed to explore the topic of drones meets for the first time Tuesday and could propose legislation to address issues surrounding the unmanned aircraft and their potential use by government agencies in North Carolina.

Rep. Mitchell Setzer, a Catawba County Republican and co-chairman of the House Study Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, said the first meeting would focus on drone technology and the status of federal and state laws governing them.

According to its charge, the committee is expected to delve into safety and privacy issues related to drones, as well as the economic benefits of the industry. It also will look at drone uses, including search and rescue, responding to natural disasters, law enforcement operations, surveying, and environmental and infrastructure monitoring.

Much of the committee’s attention is likely to focus on the potential use of surveillance drones by police or other government agencies. According to a provision in the 2013-14 state budget, no state or local government may buy or operate a drone “or disclose personal information about any person acquired through the operation of an unmanned aircraft system” before July 2015, unless the state’s chief information officer decides it’s necessary.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming some day. Gaston County police acquired a drone in 2006, but it has fallen into disrepair. And last year, the city of Monroe approved the purchase of a drone for its police department, but the plan was dropped because of public outcry and in order to let the legislature deal with the issue.

“We’re hearing more and more about law enforcement wanting them,” said Sarah Preston, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina.

Privacy concerns

Last year, Setzer filed a bill called the Preserving Privacy Act of 2013, which would have prohibited the use of drones by law enforcement agencies in criminal investigations unless they had a search warrant or “reasonable suspicion that immediate action is needed” to prevent imminent harm to life, serious damage to property, the escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence. The bill, which attracted a bipartisan group of sponsors, didn’t pass.

The ACLU, which worked with Setzer on his bill, will be among the groups following the drone committee. Preston said the organization would continue to push for legislation to protect privacy if and when drones are used in the state.

“We’re really concerned about how government agencies might use drones to covertly surveil North Carolinians without a warrant,” she said.

Committee member Rep. John Faircloth, a Republican from Guilford County and a former High Point police chief, said he doesn’t see a problem with police agencies using drones “if it can be done in a way that does not intimidate the public. ... We’ve got to show that the benefit is worth the investment.”

Setzer said the committee doesn’t intend to interfere with the production of drones or the economic benefits the industry can provide to the state.

“There just needs to be some parameters regarding privacy,” he said. He added that he hoped the committee would propose legislation to be considered in the 2014 legislative short session, which begins in May.

Gannon: 919-836-2801; Patrick Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. For more information, go to www.ncinsider.com.

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