A drone, no bigger than a toy airplane, hovered north of the Texas Capitol, floating over the heads of lawmakers momentarily distracted from their morning meetings. Several of them gathered beneath it, faces tilted skyward, marveling over a pair of goggles that allowed them to watch live video of the drone’s panoramic bird’s eye view.
But when the conversation turned to the reason for the demonstration, the tone shifted. State Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, said he is carrying legislation to prevent this futuristic technology — increasingly used by everyone from aviation hobbyists to law enforcement authorities — from capturing “indiscriminate surveillance.” It is an effort, he said, to defend Texans’ right to privacy: “Why should the government or anyone else be able to watch my every move?”
The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits commercial use of “unmanned aircraft,” or drones — meaning it is against the law to capture video or images from the sky and use them for business purposes, said Ben Gielow, general counsel and government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. But that may not be the case for long. The FAA is supposed to release rules governing the commercial use of drones by mid-2014.
The existing ban does not extend to hobbyists, people who fly drones for recreation.
Gooden's House Bill 912, which is being sponsored in the Senate by John Whitmire, D-Houston and chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, would make it a Class C misdemeanor to use an “unmanned vehicle or aircraft” to capture video or photographs of private property without the consent of the property’s owner or occupant. It would be an additional penalty to possess, display or distribute an image or video captured by an illegally operating drone.
The bill provides exceptions for law enforcement authorities, as long as they have a search or arrest warrant and are in immediate pursuit of a suspect. It also does not apply to property within 25 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico, where drones are used to enhance border security.
“It will be a greater burden on the hobbyists, but I think that’s okay,” Gooden said. “If you’re asking me to choose between my right to privacy and a hobbyist’s right to take pictures from the sky, my privacy comes first.”
Unmanned-aircraft experts say the bill is vague and would effectively nullify the benefits of drones for private use.
Todd Humphreys, director of the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, which uses drones to study ways to protect navigation systems like GPS, said he, too, could conjure up a “dystopian view, where we’re inundated with buzzing drones everywhere we go, that disrupt our sleep and our barbecues.” But without that imminent threat, he said, such a measure seems like overkill.
“If I’m using it to continuously monitor somebody, I think we could make a law that would forbid such a thing,” Humphreys said. “But if I’m up there doing some other benign research and happen to capture your picture inadvertently, I don’t think ought to be outlawed.”
Gooden said that increasingly, state legislatures around the country have begun considering drone privacy legislation to get ahead of the curve as improving technology and falling costs make unmanned aircraft more easily attainable. Last year, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, introduced a bill similar to Gooden’s in the U.S. House.
For those who suggest he is seeking a solution without a problem, Gooden counters that the future is fast approaching. “If 10 years ago, someone had said we should ban texting and driving, the response would’ve been, we’re legislating for a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said.
Gooden said that the bigger question is one left unanswered by his bill: whether Texans should be able to shoot down drones hovering over their private property illegally. His answer? Absolutely.
“We should have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our home or on our private property,” he said.