Last week, the Michigan State House of Representatives began discussing legislation to limit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles — better known as drones — by law enforcement. The bill, proposed by Republican state Rep. Tom McMillin, would limit the use of drones in situations involving a search warrant, stop police from using data inadvertently collected while tracking a suspect and prohibit drones from being equipped with weapons systems. Twenty-nine states are actively discussing drone regulation, and three have already passed laws restricting use. Due to drones’ potential to violate privacy, Michigan’s legislature should establish a moratorium on their use.
Drone technology enables operators at a command center to collect a variety of data without an individual ever knowing — let alone giving consent to a search. A law enforcement agency with unfettered access to drones could potentially use them to watch even law-abiding citizens without probable cause. This would be a huge overstep of the government into people’s private lives. Virginia, Florida and Idaho have both passed drone legislation similar to what’s being discussed in Michigan, limiting drone use to warranted searches. While these limitations may be something to look into in the future, Michigan’s legislature must take stronger action at this point.
Drones’ potential to violate people’s privacy and civil liberties is far too great to be put into the hands of local and state law enforcement. Even with the legislation proposed by McMillin, the use of drones would still be allowed in conjunction with a search warrant, as well as in ambiguously defined “emergency” situations. The possible impact of drones on residents’ daily lives, even under regulation, is not yet known. Michigan lawmakers should enact a moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement for any situation for at least the next two years, using that time to extensively study and determine the role of unmanned aircraft in domestic situations and privacy implications.
In a report released in 2011, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory detailed the extent to which drones can track people and vehicles, stitching together thousands of hours of video recorded over periods of days on end. While it’s easy to see the potential of drones to improve the criminal justice system, misuse could cause them to become potent weapons for surveillance.
Michigan must lead the way in supporting civil liberty and privacy. The concept of 24-hour surveillance could one day be a reality, violating key principles that our country was founded upon. Society often sacrifices some bit of liberty for security, but letting law enforcement use drones in their activities without a warrant goes too far. Michigan’s legislature should ban drones until their effects on privacy are known.