Earlier this month a bill limiting the use of drones in the skies over Texas went into effect. Although it would appear that this would be a good thing for the Fourth Amendment and the civil liberties it protects, key exemptions in the bill allow for constitutionally suspect surveillance.
Texas Governor Rick Perry signed the measure into law June 14.
HB 912 — the Texas Privacy Act — charges with a Class C misdemeanor any private or public entity that “uses an unmanned aircraft to capture an image of an individual or privately owned real property in this state with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image.”
The bill was passed by an impressive majority of state legislators. On May 10, the state House of Representatives approved the measure 119-11. The state Senate followed suit a week later, passing the bill by a vote of 29-1.
While the bill is a laudable attempt to shore up the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” as protected by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, there are numerous exceptions to the drone prohibitions.
Law enforcement, for example, may deploy drones in the “immediate pursuit of a person” that officers have “reasonable suspicion or probable cause to suspect has committed an offense.”
Other exceptions protect images captured by drone “by or for an electric or natural gas utility”; “for purposes of professional or scholarly research”; and as permitted by the lawful owner of the property under surveillance.
While those exceptions are arguably reasonable, there are others that seem to leave a very large loophole in the law that military and spy drones can fly through to the detriment of Texans’ privacy.
This is especially troublesome in light of the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to open the domestic skies to government drone traffic by 2015. It is estimated that by the end of that year, there could be 30,000 eyes in the sky capable of monitoring the movements of every American.
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