Times Record: Mainers against drones (June 20, 2013)

Of all the newly discovered methods of invading your privacy, drones seem the most insidious.

It’s a shame we have to rummage through all the various, recently uncovered efforts by government forces to track your every move. If there’s a primary disappointment with the Obama administration, it is this unprecedented, mostly unwarranted reach into Americans’ privacy that has us the most up in arms. It’s outrageous and largely unnecessary, and explanations about the scope of government surveillance — from drones to cyberspying to collecting data from news reporters — have been thin and mostly inexcusable.

Let’s face it, if you use the Internet or a cell phone, you have agreed — usually in a 90-page document you’ll never read — not to use these media to commit a crime. You’ve also agreed to have everything you offer through those media available to the authorities when they ask. So you are complicit in your own slavery in this regard. As long as you continue to find utility or value in technology, you will be at the whims of the owners and developers of the latest gadgetry.

Drones, though, have a certain insidiousness about them. They presuppose your permission but they do not secure it explicity. Furthermore, they take up space above your private residence, which arguably violates your constitutional right to private property and to be “secure against unreasonable search and seizure.”

There’s something we can do to slow down Big Brother, at least in Maine.

The state Senate voted 23-12 this week in favor of a bill requiring police to obtain a warrant before using unmanned aerial vehicles or drones to collect evidence in a criminal investigation. The bill also prohibits the use of facial recognition software on drones and prohibits police from weaponizing drones.

The bill, LD 236, also allows police to use the vehicles for “emergency” law enforcement activities as well as for search and rescue efforts.

The bill is a move forward in protecting Mainers’ cherished rights to privacy, but it’s not strong enough. Judges issue warrants for aerial surveillance all the time, often without looking at them, because courts are heavily biased toward aiding criminal prosecution. And what constitutes “emergency” surveillance anyway? We’re not sure the bill will effectively dent police use of eyes prying the sky at a whim.

We’re also puzzled why Attorney General Janet Mills supported the weaker Judiciary Committee majority report that would have only placed a moratorium on drone use by police for one year while a committee studied the matter.

Mills has said state and federal constitutions already protect Mainers against warrantless searches, regardless of method, and that there are no police agencies in Maine currently using drones. Both may be true, but neither argument prohibits stronger, more immediate action.

The Senate was correct in adopting the stronger minority report favored by advocates of personal freedom including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. The House will vote on the bill next. Call your representative to let him or her know you want to be free from warrantless aerial surveillance, and to strengthen controls and criteria on what police consider an “emergency.”

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