2013 02 03 Lawmakers Aim to Limit Drones and Safeguard Privacy – NYTimes.com
Lawmakers Aim to Limit Drones and Safeguard Privacy
Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune
Environmental researchers from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi with an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, after testing it near Sarita.
By EMILY RAMSHAW
Published: February 2, 2013
A drone, no bigger than a toy airplane, hovered north of the Texas Capitol, floating over the heads of lawmakers who were momentarily distracted from their morning meetings. Several of them gathered beneath it, faces tilted skyward, marveling over a pair of goggles that allowed them to watch live video of the craft’s panoramic bird’s-eye view.
But when the conversation turned to the reason for the demonstration, the tone shifted. Representative Lance Gooden, Republican of Terrell, said he was sponsoring legislation to prevent this futuristic technology — increasingly used by everyone from aviation hobbyists to law enforcement authorities — from capturing “indiscriminate surveillance.”
The bill is an effort, Mr. Gooden said, to defend Texans’ right to privacy: “Why should the government or anyone else be able to watch my every move?”
The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits commercial use of “unmanned aircraft,” or drones — meaning it is against the law to capture video or images from the sky and use them for business purposes, said Ben Gielow, general counsel and government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The existing ban does not extend to hobbyists who fly drones for recreation.
The F.A.A. is supposed to release rules governing the commercial use of drones by mid-2014.
Mr. Gooden’s bill, which is being sponsored in the Senate by John Whitmire, Democrat of Houston and chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, would make it a Class C misdemeanor to use an “unmanned vehicle or aircraft” to take video or photographs of private property without the consent of the owner or occupant. There would be an additional penalty for possession, display or distribution of an image or video captured by an illegally operating drone.
The bill provides exceptions for law enforcement authorities, as long as they have a search or arrest warrant and are in immediate pursuit of a suspect. It also does not apply to property within 25 miles of the United States border with Mexico, where drones are used to enhance border security.
“It will be a greater burden on the hobbyists, but I think that’s O.K.,” Mr. Gooden said. “If you’re asking me to choose between my right to privacy and a hobbyist’s right to take pictures from the sky, my privacy comes first.”
Unmanned-aircraft experts say the bill is vague and would effectively nullify the benefits of drones for private use.
Todd Humphreys, director of the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, which uses drones to study ways to protect navigation systems like the GPS, said that he, too, could conjure up a “dystopian view, where we’re inundated with buzzing drones everywhere we go that disrupt our sleep and our barbecues.” But without that imminent threat, he said, such a measure seems like overkill. (The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.)
“If I’m using it to continuously monitor somebody, I think we could make a law that would forbid such a thing,” Dr. Humphreys said. “But if I’m up there doing some other benign research and happen to capture your picture inadvertently, I don’t think ought to be outlawed.”