Texas takes steps to restrict surveillance drones

This guest blog post was written by Imad Khan.
On June 14, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed HB 912 into law, putting restrictions on the use of drones by law enforcement officials. This is a historic moment, especially in the wake of leaks from the NSA’s wiretapping schemes, confirming that Texas will not allow dragnet surveillance abuses by law enforcement agencies within the state’s jurisdiction.

It’s quite impressive that this bill came into law considering how powerfully its opposition challenged the measure’s sponsors and supporters. It took the cooperation of multiple parties to push this through, and Texas should be seen as a model for the rest of the country in regards to drones.

With the onset of the PATRIOT Act, it became apparent that technology could be used to violate civil liberties in the name of security. Many have scrutinized the PATRIOT Act, and later measures, for giving the executive branch overarching power without any congressional oversight. Legislatures across the country are trying to address the growing sources of civil liberties abuses by presenting bills that ensure some semblance of protection from arbitrary surveillance. Texas Representative Lance Gooden has done just that.

The most troubling aspect of drones, argue civil libertarians, is that law enforcement officials are not required to get a warrant before monitoring entire communities, untethered by individual suspicion of criminal activity. Representative Gooden has presented House Bill 912 to require that all law enforcement officials obtain a warrant before conducting surveillance. This is a major step in preventing civil liberties violations.

Notwithstanding its protections against dragnet spying, HB 912 still allows law enforcement agencies to use drones when supported by probable cause, especially if monitoring on foot would put officers’ lives or safety at jeopardy.

These measures give law enforcement reasonable flexibility, but the reality of the situation is that governments and law enforcement will do whatever necessary to increase their own power. An legislative aide mentioned one city, which he wouldn't name, that already hosts a "massive drone program." When he inquired about the uses of its drone armada, City officials refused to comment. Situations like these are happening around the country, and require protections like HB 912.

Unsurprisingly, this bill received support from many libertarian-leaning republicans and freshman ideologues. One representative, in particular, came across the aisle to joint author the bill. Representative Lon Burnam out of Fort Worth, the longest tenured Democrat in the Texas House, believes that the battle lines in the struggle for liberty should not be drawn on partisan grounds. Any policy that encourages violations, whether supported by democrats or republicans, is an affront to everyone's constitutional rights. With Burnam supporting the bill, it received the necessary democratic support to move forward.

Surprisingly, much of the resistance against the bill did not come from police forces, but rather hobbyists, who like to fly their quad copters and make aerial videos. They felt that this bill would make their hobby effectively illegal. Representative Gooden's team was smart, responding by making amendments to protect hobbyists from prosecution if their drones are not used for malicious purposes. For example, say a hobbyist was flying her remote controlled quad copter to take video of her backyard. If she accidentally captures footage of her neighbor’s backyard in the video, she can not be charged as long as she erases the footage.

One concern many law enforcement officials had with the bill were its provisions requiring penalties for disclosure. If images were illegally released, violators would be subject to a $1,000 fine per image shared, allowing it to multiply exponentially if the target of Internet interest. They claimed that if an image were to accidentally end up on the internet and get shared 1,000 times, that officer would have to pay one million in penalties. Representative Gooden's office did address this by capping the fine for an image that ended up on the internet. Groups that had previously challenged the bill softened their stance.

With US Senator Rand Paul's famous fourteen hour filibuster in the US Senate over drones and the Obama administration's liberal use of unmanned aerial combat vehicles in Pakistan and Afghanistan, many have become rather fearful of drones. In the wrong hands, they can be greatly abused and bring much harm. Yet other drones are used for safety purposes, such those that can go into a fire and help assist in suppression.

Within the next 20 years, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that there will be more than 30,000 drones patrolling US skies. In 2015, the FAA will start regulating the use of drones.

Things seem rather bleak, but as long as Americans decide firmly to not tolerate any violations, and if --and only if -- law enforcement officials or the federal government use them subject to legal restrictions with judicial oversight, it may be possible for an effective and safe drone program. But then again, with an estimated 30,000 drones to be traveling overhead in the next 20 years and America's recent track record with wiretapping and other liberties violations, optimism may be premature.

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