Drone Debate: Proposal sparks privacy concerns

Special Report: Expert: Wayward drones pose danger to airplanes >>

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Privacy is on the radar for many Americans as of late, especially in the wake of the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance controversy.

But where do you draw the line when it comes to privacy and protection? That’s the question lawmakers are facing right now when it comes to the use of unmanned aircraft systems, otherwise known as drones.

Police said a drone could save the life of a missing child or track down an armed gunman, but others believe flying surveillance cameras violate people’s privacy. No law enforcement groups in Rhode Island are using drones right now, but many said they want to, and soon. That proposal is raising privacy concerns for some state lawmakers, who want to restrict when and how drones can be used.

Drones can fly up to 32 miles per hour, and can go thousands of feet into the air. Equipped with a high definition camera and remote controlled from the ground, drones can get to places faster and see things better than the human eye, which could make them a critical tool for law enforcement.

Imagine this scenario: You’re a parent, and your child is missing in the woods. What’s the quickest way to start a search? Perhaps a drone, equipped with an infrared camera. Another scenario where a drone could potentially save a life is when an active shooter is on the run. A drone could locate and track that suspect without putting the lives of police officers in danger.

“At this point we don’t have drones,” said Colonel Steven O’Donnell of the Rhode Island State Police. “But as things progress, I think law enforcement should have the opportunity to use drones.”

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t disagree.

“The ACLU believes there is a legitimate use for drones,” said the group’s Hillary Davis. “But what we need to do is put into place some privacy protections before law enforcement has drones.”

That’s why the ACLU is backing legislation that was recently introduced by State Rep. Teresa Tanzi, a Democrat from South Kingstown. The bill would require law enforcement to get a warrant before they can use a drone. That would of course take time; something first responders don’t always have at the scene of an emergency.

“That first response, that’s when the most critical things happen in our business,” says Colonel O’Donnell. “The legislation as its written would restrict that.”

“We understand where law enforcement is coming from,” says Davis from the ACLU. “[We] just want to ensure that the privacy of Rhode Islanders are protected before drones are in use.”

So as the balancing act between privacy and protection plays out at the statehouse, the future of emergency response is up in the air.

“We don’t want to restrict us so much where we can’t do our job,” says Colonel O’Donnell. “We can’t protect ourselves, nor can we protect the citizens we’re sworn to protect.”

Representative Tanzi’s bill is still being studied by the house judiciary committee. It’s hasn’t made it to the house floor for a vote yet. We’ve learned 34 other states are looking at drone legislation this year as well.

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