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Government drones can't snoop on us under new law

A new law that prohibits police from using drones without a warrant to track citizens was signed today by Gov. Pat Quinn.

People are familiar with the larger drones that patrol our borders or war zones. But some of the unmanned aerial vehicles are so small they can fly around unnoticed, carrying high-power zoom lenses and night vision and see-through imaging equipment. Think you are alone and unobserved in your backyard or house? Not if a drone is around that can monitor you in your lawn or through your windows.

Drones can be put to many beneficial uses. They monitor wildfires, keep tabs on crops and track wildlife. They can help find missing people. Fire departments can fly them over burning buildings to help guide firefighters.

Drones also are becoming more popular with police departments. The Greenfield, Ind., police department, for example, earlier this month got its own drone quadcopter, a remote-control-operated helicopter with a mount on the bottom where users can attach a camera, according to the Associated Press. The drone will be used mostly to take aerial photos and video of accident scenes, the police chief said.

But most of us probably don’t want authorities using those same drones to track us. Now, if authorities in Illinois are curious about our movements, they will need to persuade a judge there’s a good reason they should be allowed to track us with a drone.

Chief sponsor State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) said the legislation was prompted by “the rapid deregulation of drones at the federal level.”

On Aug. 16, Quinn signed a separate bill, HB 1652, that bans drones from tracking people who were lawfully hunting or fishing. That law, sponsored by State Rep. Adam Brown (R-Champaign) and Biss, was in response to an announcement in April by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that, according to news reports, it was considering purchasing one or more drones “to monitor those who are out in the woods with death on their minds.”

Read a March 4 Sun-Times editorial about the drone legislation here.

Read a Sun-Times news story about the bill here.

UPDATE 5:02 PM AUG. 27: Here’s today’s statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois:

We are pleased that Governor Pat Quinn has acted today to sign Senate Bill 1587 into law. The measure, which won broad support in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly, provides basic privacy protections for all residents in Illinois when state or local law enforcement officials use drone surveillance technology. The law requires police to obtain a warrant from an independent judge before using a drone, subject to narrow exemptions, such as emergencies. We are grateful that the law enforcement community in Illinois participated in discussions that led to the final version of this bill, paving the way for its smooth passage.

This measure demonstrates that it is possible to place appropriate and reasonable guidelines on emerging technologies that ensure privacy for average residents in Illinois. While Congress has failed so far to modernize our on-line privacy laws (the most current update was completed in the 1980s, before most of us had access to the internet) we urge the Illinois General Assembly to continue to explore further ways that it can protect communications and location privacy for residents of our state.

The ACLU of Illinois also wants to extend a special note of thanks to the sponsors of this legislation, Senator Daniel Biss and Representative Ann Williams, who skillfully navigated the measure through the Senate and House. We are appreciative of their leadership and vision on this issue.