With drones, privacy questions up in the air

Battalion Chief Kurt M. Strachota holds the Bellevue Fire Department's $25,000 drone, purchased with a federal grant a year ago but not yet put to use.


LINCOLN — Perched on a high shelf, next to the colorful boxes of radio-controlled model airplanes, sits the latest thing in high-tech toys: a flying drone equipped with a video camera.

For $300, the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 will transmit high-resolution live video to a cellphone or laptop computer from up to 150 feet away as it hovers courtesy of four battery-powered propellers.

But what hobby shop owners see as a hot-selling, trendy new toy, some state lawmakers see as a snooping device that could allow anyone with a few bucks to violate the privacy and peace of neighbors and others.

“This isn't Jules Verne,” State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said, referring to the 19th century adventure novelist. “This is real.”

The spread of drones from battlefields in Afghanistan into private hands and the increased use of the unmanned surveillance planes by government agencies are causing privacy concerns across the country, and prompting efforts to limit and regulate their use.

It's all part of a larger debate over government surveillance sparked by recent revelations of the extensive monitoring of citizens' telephone records and Internet activity by the National Security Agency.

Becki Brenner, executive director of the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said drones have legitimate uses, such as in searches for missing people. But Brenner said there's also a potential for civil liberties violations.

“Because the technology is so new, we want to make sure there are policies in place to ensure that the technology is not misused,” she said.

More than 40 states, including Nebraska and Iowa, saw the introduction of drone-related legislation this year. At least six states have passed laws requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant from a judge before using a drone to gather information. One state, Virginia, has adopted a two-year moratorium on police use of the devices.

Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher said he introduced a bill in the Nebraska Legislature in January after a constituent expressed concerns about drones being an invasion of privacy.

“These drones allow you to go snoop where you want to snoop,” Schumacher said. “When I was growing up, privacy was a big thing. What you did in the confines of your own property and own house was pretty sacred. But that seems to have changed in the last 10 years.”

The senator's bill was based on a Florida proposal. As now written, the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act would bar almost all law enforcement uses.

Legislative Bill 412 would prohibit local and state agencies from using drones “to gather evidence or other information” and would bar any evidence obtained by a drone from being used in court.

It would allow a citizen to bring a lawsuit if police used a drone. The proposal, though, would allow drones to be used for national security purposes if a credible risk were identified.

The bill failed to advance to debate by the full Legislature this spring, but could in 2014. Schumacher said he has drafted some “common-sense” amendments to allow law enforcement to use drones to search for missing people, during natural disasters and when a search warrant is obtained.

But the bigger issue, he said, is how, or if, the Legislature could regulate use by a private individual who has purchased a hobby drone equipped with a high-definition camera.

LB 412 does not address private drone use, though “peeping tom” laws may already cover instances in which someone is spying on a sunbathing neighbor.

Schumacher and Ashford both said the use of drones is something the Legislature needs to debate before drones become even more common.

And everyone expects them to become much more common.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimated that as many as 7,500 small commercial unmanned aircraft could be buzzing about American airspace within the next few years. By 2020, the FAA estimated that as many as 10,000 could be licensed.

The list of potential and current uses of the unmanned flying machines is long.

Farmers could use them to check on crops and center-pivot irrigation systems, or to spot-spray weeds. Some home inspectors already use them to look at hard-to-reach roofs, and some commercial photographers employ drones to obtain cool overhead shots of landscapes, homes being sold or events. It's much cheaper, and easier, than renting a plane and hiring a pilot.

Right now the FAA technically bans any commercial use of drones, but there are plenty of folks who are skirting the rules. Private drones are also barred from flying higher than 400 feet and restricted from flying near airports.

The FAA has been mandated to develop plans by September 2015 for safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the nation's airspace, and it is expected to relax its rules.

It opens up an exciting array of new applications, according to Matt Waite, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor. He founded UNL's “drone journalism lab” to look at the use of drones for news-gathering, but Waite said journalism is only the tip of the aerial iceberg.

“The technology is fantastic, changing at breathtaking speed,” he said. “I understand that people are a little uncomfortable with these things, but I hope the Legislature sees there's an enormous economic opportunity that has nothing to do with the scary overtones.”

So far Nebraska and Iowa have been slow to jump on the drone train, though there have been drone-inspired protests in the Hawkeye State.

Iowa City adopted an anti-drone policy in June after an activist group called Stop Big Brother objected to the use of red-light cameras in the university town. The group suspected that police would want drones next.

There was also a protest march across eastern Iowa this summer by peace activists upset with plans to operate military drones out of a National Guard base in Des Moines.

In Nebraska, it's believed that only two agencies, the Bellevue and Cedar Bluffs Fire Departments, have drones, and Bellevue has never used its $25,000 model, purchased a year ago with a federal grant.

Bellevue Fire Chief Perry Guido said budget and manpower shortages have prevented personnel from getting the necessary training and FAA approval to fly the drone.

He rejected any suggestion that the lack of use shows that the drone isn't needed and was a waste of money. Guido said if there were a release of toxic chemicals, Bellevue's hazardous material response team could use the drone to fly over a plant or train derailment to assess damage and the extent of toxic releases.

“I don't know how many instances there would be a need for it. But I'll tell you this, if there ever was a need, it would save lives,” Guido said.

Rob Benke, chief of the Cedar Bluffs Suburban Fire Protection District south and west of Fremont, said his department has used an eight-propeller, radio-controlled helicopter, owned by one of his firefighters, at least three times in the past four years.

Once it was used to get a better look at hot spots on the roofs of several buildings burning in North Bend. It was also used to take aerial photographs of a crash involving a semitrailer truck on nearby U.S. 77 and to assess whether an ice jam on the Platte River was hazardous enough to call for an evacuation of the Woodcliff housing subdivision.

The video showed the ice jam breaking up. It meant 450 homes avoided an evacuation order.

“It's a great tool. It's made a big difference,” Benke said.

A year ago, rumors spread that the federal Environmental Protection Agency was using drones to check on feedlots in Nebraska and Iowa. But officials labeled those claims as false.

The widespread use of drones by local police agencies doesn't seem imminent.

Representatives of the Nebraska State Patrol, Omaha and Bellevue Police Departments, and Douglas and Lancaster County Sheriff's Offices all said they have no immediate plans to obtain drones. Some expressed doubts about how often they would be needed and also cited the expense and training required.

In Omaha, a manned helicopter scans the streets regularly, but spokeswoman Darci Tierney said replacing it with a drone is not being explored. They serve different purposes, Tierney said.

“Drones can be difficult to use in a metropolitan area for patrol,” she said. “As technology advances, (a drone) might be something to look at down the road, but it would be premature at this point.”

Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning said drones could provide a lower-cost, quicker way to search for a missing person, but “there needs to be some regulation to reduce the paranoia.”

Dan Schmidt, owner of Hobby Town in Lincoln, said the lightweight drone he sells has been popular since he began stocking it more than a year ago. Weighing a little more than a pound, the AR 2.0 “quadricopter” is controlled by a cellphone and streams video that is as sharp as a high-definition TV.

“Any 8-year-old who plays video games could fly this,” Schmidt said.

He said he hasn't gotten a “nefarious vibe” from anyone who has purchased one. Schmidt said any product can be misused, but a drone isn't stealthy enough to spy effectively.

“It's loud enough and big enough you'd have to be pretty oblivious not to notice it,” Schmidt said.

Windy weather is a problem for drones, and they have limited battery power. Even expensive, private drones can stay aloft for only 15 or 20 minutes without a battery change; the most common hobby model can fly only eight minutes, according to Waite, the drone lab director.

“If you're worried about the paparazzi stalking Lindsay Lohan, they'd better have a truckload of batteries,” he said.

Until the FAA rules are relaxed, Waite said, the most fertile ground for drone use will be in rural areas — because, technically, they can't be used in most urban areas because of the proximity of airports.

UNL's drone has been grounded by the FAA, which warned the school that, as a public agency, it needs the same “certificate of authorization” as the U.S. Border Patrol, which uses drones to scan the Mexican and Canadian borders. Waite said the drone lab is in the process of obtaining the necessary permission, because drones aren't going away.

Mostly, he said, he sees the drones he sells as a nifty new toy. They're fun, not scary.

He likes watching overhead video showing him on the ground, operating the drone.

“You're able to look at yourself when you're flying,” Schmidt said. “To have a first-person view is cool.”

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