Texas drone bill sparks a battle

Media groups, and even some privacy advocates slam Texas effort to limit drone use as a threat to free speech

The battle to find a balance between privacy concerns and the beneficial use of drones for commercial and law enforcement purposes is in sharp focus in a bill that's winding its way through the Texas legislature.

The Texas Privacy Act (HB 912), sponsored by Rep. Lance Gooden (R-District 4), would make it illegal, under specific circumstances, to take photographs or possess photographs taken from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.

The Texas bill carves out exemptions for law enforcement officers with a valid search warrant, or who are in active pursuit of a suspect. The legislation would also permit drone use by border patrol agents and first responders on firefighting or rescue efforts.

In most other cases, though, owners or operators of drones would be prohibited from capturing images of people, property, land and buildings without permission of the person being photographed and/or the owner of the property.

Anyone that "possesses, discloses, displays, distributes or otherwise uses an image" without such consent would face fines of up to $1,000 for each illegal act. The law would permit individuals to bring legal action against drone operators they believe took photos of them or their property.

The bill has passed the Texas House and is now set for debate in the state Senate.

The bill has prompted sharp criticism from media and entertainment groups, which contend that its language threatens constitutionally protected free speech.

In a letter sent this week, members of The Society of Professional Journalists, The Motion Picture Association of America, The Radio and Television Digital News Association and others called on the Texas Senate to reject the measure.

"We believe that this bill will create a significant impediment to journalists and others who are engaged in constitutionally protected speech," said Alicia Calzada, attorney for the National Press Photographers Association, in the letter.

The bill's language is so vague it effectively makes photography a crime, Calzada wrote. "It makes speech in the form of publishing images, or even possessing them, illegal," she said.

The bill does not clearly define illegal monitoring or surveillance, the letter said. Such ambiguity is dangerous, Calzada noted.

"A journalist (or ordinary citizen) monitoring an environmental spill, documenting the aftermath of a disaster or simply monitoring traffic conditions could easily be committing a crime under this bill. This would create an enormous burden on speech that is clearly constitutionally protected," the letter argued.

The bill also makes no distinction between private and public property, Calzada wrote. "Photography that is completely legal using a helicopter, would suddenly be illegal, and subject the photographer to significant liability, simply because it is taken with a UAV," she said.

In an email to Computerworld, Calzada pointed to a 2012 incident involving a meatpacking company in the Dallas area. A local citizen, using a simple camera-equipped remote-controlled airplane flying at low-altitude, took several photos of the Trinity River. On retrieving his photos, he noticed what appeared to be blood and notified authorities.

Local and state authorities later confirmed that untreated pig blood was being released into the river by a meatpacking plant. The discovery led to an 18-count indictment charging the company and two of its executives with offenses.

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