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.

"If this bill were in place at the time, the citizen who blew the whistle on this horrible event would be criminally liable. In addition, he would be subject to a civil lawsuit," Calzada said in the email.

The Dallas Morning News and area television stations that carried the images would have also been subject to lawsuits, she said. "The way the bill is written, I could be standing in a public place and the UAV could be in a public place, but because private property is simply in the photograph, I would be liable."

Such sentiments are notable, she said. Until now, the most vocal protests related to drones have been from people opposed to the use of UAVs over domestic airspace.

Concerns about drone use have been growing ever since President Barack Obama signed off on the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 last year. The bill permits commercial UAVs to operate over U.S. airspace.

Some experts estimate that there could be as many as 30,000 drones operating over U.S. skies in the next few years, which has alarmed privacy and rights advocacy groups.

Privacy advocates fear that drones equipped with cameras, license plate readers and other sophisticated monitoring equipment will allow law enforcement and commercial entities to carry out unprecedented surveillance of U.S. citizens. Such concerns have already prompted several states to pass, or consider passing laws that would limit what drone operators can and cannot do.

Drone industry lobbyists such as Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) insist that privacy and civil rights concerns tied to drones stem from a misunderstanding of how they will be used. AUVSI and other groups say that drones can be useful in many areas, including law enforcement, traffic management, crop monitoring, land management, news reporting, real estate sales and filmmaking.

Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for the AUVSI said the Texas legislation aims to rewrite search warrant requirements and create a separate distinction for unmanned systems.

"Would search and rescue teams not be able to use [Unmanned Aerial Systems] to take photos of an area where a missing child is thought to be? Would researchers be prohibited from using UAS to photograph hurricanes or tornadoes in efforts to better understand them and predict their paths? Would farmers be prohibited from using UAS to take images of their crops to efficiently check for signs of drought or blight?" she asked.

The protests in Texas highlight the challenges involved in keeping both sides happy, said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"This piece of legislation goes way too far," in limiting drone use, she said. "It contains the most broad language of any of the pieces of legislation I have seen so far." she noted.

As the FAA starts issuing more licenses expect to see more such challenges to state drone privacy laws, Lynch added.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His email address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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