Drone

This September 2011 file photo provided by Vanguard Defense Industries, shows a ShadowHawk drone with Montgomery County, Texas, SWAT team members. Drone manufacturers are trying to find new markets for their products -- which are projected to grow into a $90 billion industry in the next decade -- outside of the military and spy agencies. Police departments will be a big part of that market. The FFA says that about 30,000 commercial and government drones could be flying over the United States in the next 10 years.

AP file photo

At first blush, the proposal seems driven by paranoia.

But Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus worries that police will start using drones -- small, pilotless airplanes or helicopters employed by the United States to track enemies and attack terrorists and military targets -- to spy on people.

"If there's going to be a policy decision from the legislative level on the use of drones for the surveillance of civilian populations, then now's the time to do it -- before communities begin investing in these devices," he said.

Schumacher has introduced the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act (LB412) that says "a law enforcement agency shall not use a drone to gather evidence or other information" and that "... evidence obtained or collected in violation of the ... act is not admissible as evidence in a criminal prosecution in any court of law in this state."

The bill would apply only to local and state law enforcement agencies.

He's not alone in his angst. A 2012 poll said about one-third of Americans worry about their privacy if police start using drones.

And it's arguably not misplaced concern in an age when surveillance cameras are mounted everywhere from convenience stores to office buildings to parking lots and used widely by police investigators to gather information.

Drone manufacturers are trying to find new markets for their products outside of the military and spy agencies, and police departments are a big part of that push.

The Federal Aviation Administration says about 30,000 commercial and government drones could be flying over the United States within 10 years, when their sale and servicing is projected to grow into a $90 billion industry. And the FAA has been ordered by Congress to develop safety regulations that would allow routine domestic use of drones.

Drones can be employed domestically in a variety of ways, including monitoring oil pipelines for leaks or flying over farm fields to check crops. The Bellevue Fire Department, using a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, recently bought a small drone equipped with cameras that can send photos and video to firefighters and emergency personnel.

Despite having myriad applications, the use of drones by police and government agents also has caught the attention of federal lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

"I am concerned about the growing use of drones by federal and local authorities to spy on Americans here at home," he said this month in a speech at the Georgetown University Law Center. "I think there could be a significant threat to the privacy and civil liberties of millions of Americans. Let's not forget we have certain basic constitutional rights as Americans."

Becki Brenner, executive director of the Nebraska ACLU, said drones should be prohibited for indiscriminate mass surveillance and should be used only "where there are grounds to believe they will collect evidence relating to a specific instance of criminal wrongdoing, or in emergencies."

"We need clear privacy rules so that we can enjoy this new technology without sacrificing our privacy," she said. "Our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with our democratic values. Courts still are wrestling with the constitutionality of the usage of this technology.

"We need a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without bringing us closer to a 'surveillance society,' in which everyone's move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by authorities," she said.

Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner said drones could be a valuable tool to law enforcement.

But he said the way Schumacher's bill is worded, it would prevent a drone from being used, for example, to search for a missing boater at Branched Oak Lake.

"What's the difference between a drone and a piloted aircraft?" he asked.

Said Schumacher: "It is also another tool that freedom-loving people don't need above their houses and their backyards."

"It's something that I think is worthy of discussion," he said.

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.

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