Lenoir may set limits on drone use

Feb. 27, 2013 @ 05:39 AM

Big Brother isn’t watching you yet, but the technology for drones is advancing rapidly enough that the Lenoir City Council will consider adopting a formal policy on their use by police.

The subject drew extended discussion during Tuesday morning’s meeting of Lenoir’s Committee of the Whole.

Mayor Pro Tem T.J. Rohr said he raised the issue after a constituent asked him about it. While he initially dismissed it as something not to be concerned about, further research that showed how rapidly plans ar moving for the use of drones for civilian and law enforcement purposes convinced him it needed addressing, he said.

“I have some serious concerns about them,” he said. “There’s no law on it, whether you need a warrant or not.”

Under a bill passed by Congress earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration was given 90 days to speed up the process by which government agencies and law enforcement can get permission to use drones in the U.S., and by 2015 it has to start allowing commercial use of drones.

Police Chief Scott Brown said that although the police department is not planning to try to buy a drone, the department could seek to borrow the use of one from other law enforcement agencies or the National Guard if it were needed, such as in case of searching for an armed suspect in dense woods.

“We would respectfully ask, should those systems be needed, that they be allowed,” Brown said.

Rohr said he was worried about having no guidelines to protect individual privacy.

“It’s very easy to say we’re going to use them only in very limited circumstances,” he said, but once deployed they could easily be used in more routine situations.

Councilman Ben Willis said that the rapid advance of technology – with ever more sensitive surveillance capability in ever smaller packages, and the ability to monitor data transmitted by smartphones – makes it difficult to control.

Rohr said he wanted the city to prohibit the use of drones without a warrant or for anything but surveillance, “that they’re only used by our agencies that we’ve regulated, and definitely not for offensive capabilities.”

City Manager Lane Bailey cautioned that any ordinance the city might adopt would not prevent the use of drones by state or federal officials.

Brown said he would bring the city council a draft policy based on a model created by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, but he said he hopes the council does not tie the police department’s hands too tightly on the issue.

“I just don’t want us to overreact,” he said.

The IACP’s policy, adopted in September, calls for limiting use of drones in local law enforcement operations and urges that they not be armed.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said that the IACP’s recommendations “are quite strong in some areas." http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty/police-chiefs-issue-recommendations-drones-look-how-they-measure

"At the same time, we don't think these recommendations go far enough to ensure true protection of privacy from drones," the ACLU said. The ACLU would prefer to see privacy protections in law, "not merely promulgated by the police themselves."

Some legislative proposals call for authorities to get warrants before using drones except in cases such as a threat of terrorist attack or when someone’s life is in danger.