Privacy concerns soar as drones patrol U.S. skies
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Andrew Conte contributed to this report.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Veteran designation on Pennsylvania driver’s licenses loosely audited
- Pa. trooper wounded in barracks ambush hopes to return to force
- Trooper severely injured when hit by own car
- Impact of Ohio’s moves to reduce Lake Erie algae years away
- PennDOT turns to roundabout intersections, citing safety, cost
- Mother, grandparents of starved boy sentenced to prison
- Authorities investigate racist letter to Pa. state police pick Brown
- Four veterinarians charged for doping race horses at Penn National
- Treasure of World War II posters comes to light at Grove City College
- Prosecutor: Copper theft from Greene County well site wasn’t protest