CHICAGO (AP) — At the start of what could be a new era in police surveillance, an Illinois legislator is proposing a limit on how law enforcement agencies can use drones — highly sophisticated, unmanned aircraft that authorities are eyeing for aerial surveillance.
While drones could help police combat crime, they have generated a host of privacy concerns among civil rights advocates and lawmakers across the country, who worry that pervasive use of the devices could subject average citizens to unwarranted intrusion. The Congressional Research Service says their use "is bound only by human ingenuity."
In Illinois, the Champaign County sheriff's office has experimented with its own drone. The Cook County sheriff also has expressed enthusiasm about the new technology.
The proposed legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss, would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant before using a drone to collect information. The bill includes a handful of exceptions, including when the Department of Homeland Security determines such surveillance is needed to prevent a terrorist attack. Other exceptions would be cases of imminent danger or preventing a prisoner escape.
"We want to make sure that the reasonable expectation that people have for privacy is maintained," said Biss, an Evanston Democrat and former University of Chicago math professor.
"Look, right now, the City of Chicago or Cook County has a helicopter flying over the city and there's somebody looking out of the helicopter, and that's totally fine. So, what's the problem doing the exact same thing without a person? The potentially enormously invasive capacity of this drone technology."
Biss, 35, stressed that while the presence of a helicopter is impossible to miss, a drone could easily go unnoticed, meaning people would not know they are being watched.
Drones are already flying in American airspace. Some law enforcement agencies have used them for search and rescue operations, security along the U.S.-Mexico border, weather research, and scientific data collection. But Congress last year authorized the Federal Aviation Administration to open America's airspace to widespread drone flights by 2015.