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Privacy concerns soar as drones patrol U.S. skies

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Drones such as this test model in Simi Valley, Calif., are beginning to be employed by law enforcement agencies across the country. The tiny drone with four whirling rotors swoops back and forth about 200 feet above the ground scouring the landscape and capturing crystal-clear video of what lies below.

HARRISBURG — Cliff Warner is leery of drone use in the United States.

As governments step up their use domestically, the potential to violate someone's privacy looms, said Warner, 65, a railroad retiree from Jefferson Hills.

“It's basically a warrantless search if they can fly over your property and see what you're doing,” Warner said. “I'm not comfortable with them at all.

“We shouldn't be afraid of our government, but we are afraid of our government. I fear for my children and grandchildren.”

Concern is growing in states including Pennsylvania about the use of pilotless aircraft, or drones. Lawmakers in 29 states are considering legislation to clarify or regulate their use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. States' action picked up significantly in the past year or so as awareness of drones increased, said policy specialist Richard Williams.

Congress has approved commercial use of drones, starting in 2015. But in Pennsylvania, state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, is filing a bill to halt for two years any use of drones by state and local governments or law enforcement agencies.

“The use of drone technology has raised a myriad of constitutional issues across the United States, and many states have introduced legislation to limit, ban, or place a moratorium on the use of drones until these issues can be properly vetted,” Folmer said.

He worries that drones might violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday signed legislation requiring warrants for law enforcement surveillance with drones. The Florida law contains an exemption for combating terrorism. An earlier enacted Idaho law requires warrants.

The number of drones in use is not known. The Los Angeles Times this month reported the Federal Aviation Administration approved 1,428 permits since 2007 for unmanned aircraft. The permits are mostly held by law enforcement agencies and some universities and government agencies, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's website.

Though drone usage is not widespread, it could be within five to 10 years, Folmer said.

The Pennsylvania State Police do not use them, a spokeswoman said. The Attorney General's Office has no comment nor a position on them, a spokesman said.

Penn State University applied to the FAA for a drone permit and was denied, said Lisa Powers, a university spokeswoman. An aerospace engineering professor who was researching drones applied.

The Army National Guard uses drones for training at Fort Indiantown Gap near Harrisburg, said Sgt. Matthew Jones. The reconnaissance drones are limited to military air space, Jones said.

Drones came to prominence for stealthily killing terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen. They sometimes are used for tracking wildlife, disaster response and rescue operations.

Warner, the retired railroad signal worker, said he sees valid uses for them in border patrols or fugitive apprehensions.

But he reiterated: “I am not comfortable with them at all.”

Folmer could not agree more. He said a moratorium would give the state time to sort out valid uses and “strike the proper balance.”

His bill to halt the use of drones until mid-2015 is similar to a Virginia law.

Chris Rolinson, a photography professor at Point Park University, Downtown, said he wonders about intrusions by drones with mounted cameras. He wants to start using the technology in the classroom because it gives photographers new perspectives, but he acknowledged that it raises questions about privacy.

“There is, without a doubt, going to be a Supreme Court ruling on this down the road because the law is not clear on whether this is legal or not,” Rolinson said. “Where do you draw the line on intrusion?”

It's an issue that joins those on the political far right with the left. The American Civil Liberties Union shares privacy concerns with the conservative Folmer.

The ACLU supports “legislation that would protect the privacy of Pennsylvania residents, including requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before deploying surveillance drones,” said spokeswoman Sara Mullen.

Folmer's is not the first drone bill filed in Harrisburg. One filed last session by a House Democrat languished in committee. But Folmer is a member of the party controlling the Senate and the House, and his bill has the support of Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County.

“I applaud Sen. Folmer for starting this important conversation now,” Pileggi said. “The use, or potential use, of drones over Pennsylvania air space raises a number of serious issues, which should be addressed before the practice becomes widespread.”

Though people hold varying opinions about drones, often there is not a clear-cut “pro-drone, anti-drone” debate, said Williams of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“I just want to make sure we understand this technology and use it properly,” Folmer said.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or Staff writer Andrew Conte contributed to this report.

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