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Our Privacy Rights Are Up In The Air

Posted: March 24, 2015|Category: Privacy

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By Hillary Davis, Policy Associate

By all accounts, drones are here to stay.

There are drone film festivals, wedding photographer drones, drones that may soon be able to deliver your Amazon purchases, and even a Rhode Island Fire Drone. Yet, as drone hobbyists and business alike find new and innovative ways to use this technology, Rhode Island's laws lag woefully behind in understanding that law enforcement has an equal or larger interest in using drone technology.

Regardless of one's opinions on drones, it's easy to understand the incentives in place for law enforcement use of drones. In the few years since drones first hit the public lexicon, they have become cheaper, with longer battery life and a wide range of potential features. Even a basic hobby drone can carry a camera; professional-level drones can carry a camera with a high enough resolution to zoom in from very far away. Infrared cameras, night-vision, and other significant surveillance tools may also be equipped on a drone, flown far enough away that the subject may never know they are being observed.

As a result, the potential for legitimate use of drones is tremendous, but so too are the potentials for misuse. Yet while fourteen states have recognized these risks and put in place laws to protect their residents, Rhode Island has over the past three years neglected to pass legislation requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant for drone use.

Instead, many posit that the Fourth Amendment alone should be sufficient to protect Rhode Islanders from intrusions of privacy, and that any other questions about privacy should be handled by the courts. That the courts can only determine if a person’s rights have already been violated is of little concern to these individuals but, as an organization that fights in the courts on a regular basis to protect Fourth Amendment rights, it’s of great concern to the ACLU.

Passage by the Rhode Island General Assembly of strong legislation restricting law enforcement’s use of drones is critical to protecting Rhode Islanders’ privacy before a violation occurs, and before a protracted, expensive court case is necessary to recognize what we already know: law enforcement should obtain a warrant prior to drone use, except in specific emergency circumstances.

There are a number of other privacy concerns that come with drones – from their use by corporations to the extent to which your neighbor can use a drone to film you – and those also need to be evaluated in time. But neither of those options carry the serious implications for your privacy as law enforcement’s use of drones does. Corporations and your neighbor cannot put you in jail; law enforcement can. Fourteen states have seen fit to clarify exactly when and how law enforcement can use a drone; Rhode Island should not be the last to protect our Fourth Amendment Rights.

For more information on how you can help pass drone legislation this year, email policy@riaclu.org.

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