Tahlequah Daily Press

March 14, 2013

Drone restriction bill tabled

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Helicopters flying low over Cherokee County during peak marijuana-growing season are not uncommon sights. In a few short years, though, they may be replaced by small, unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called “drones.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to approve regulations for the drones by 2015, and Oklahoma could gain hundreds more jobs by 2025, according to a study commissioned by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Companies are testing drones in restricted air space over Fort Sill near Elgin. The U.S. Homeland Security Department selected the site last year, and the program is funded to run through December. The robotic aircraft being tested is to be used for search-and-rescue efforts or in responding to natural disasters such as tornadoes and fires.

Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, believes it’s important to protect Oklahomans’ privacy before drone usage becomes commonplace. Wesselhoft recently proposed House Bill 1556, which would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using drones for targeted surveillance, and prohibit the weaponization of civilian drones. Wesselhoft was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union in supporting the measure.

In an earlier report, Wesselhoft said he’s not opposed to the use of drones, which could eventually bring 600 jobs to Oklahoma, but he wants regulations in place first.

“This is a matter of establishing some ground rules at the beginning of the game, to prevent abuses before they happen,” said Wesselhoft in a news release.

Jessica Brown, public information officer with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, said drones could be helpful to her agency. She also indicated warrants are not always required in surveillance operations.

“Some operations require a warrant, by law, like a wiretap,” said Brown. “There are other ways we can surveil someone when we don’t have to have a warrant.”

The OSBI conducts all kinds of probes for cases of official misconduct, murder for hire, rapes and homicides.

“I see where Wesselhoft is coming from, but there is another safety side to the issue, too,” said Brown. “[Using drones] takes the human element out of surveillance, which keeps officers more safe.”

The Daily Press polled its Facebook friends, asking their opinions on the use of drones for law enforcement.

Kate Starr said warrants should be obtained before using drones, at the bare minimum.

“I’m all for technology to help out in emergencies and disasters, but the potential for misuse and its use against the population is a big concern,” she said.

Olga Hoenes, staffer at Northeastern State University’s College of Optometry, is opposed to this type of drone use.

“I think that’s going a little too far in the invasion of our privacy,” said Hoenes. “That said, I have never had to have anyone I love rescued from disaster, so I could be convinced otherwise on the drones, if they are not loaded with guns. Too many things could go wrong and they shoot an innocent victim.”

Area attorney Kathy Tibbits also has concerns about the use of drones.

“Every drone should be required to record continuous footage, so that current standards for privacy can be protected by lawyers,” said Tibbits. “Use of drones raises a bunch of new privacy concerns, and threatens to restrict personal privacy protections even further than now with cars.”

Dr. John Yeutter, associate professor of accounting at NSU, said privacy, to a degree, has already been invaded.

“What’s the difference between a drone flying over Adair County and a manned chopper? They use choppers to look for ‘vegetation’ every year, then they get the warrant,” he said.

Local resident Tony O’seland said privacy has become a thing of the past.

“Bearing in mind that, according to the Supreme Court – based on the landmark ruling from Florida – no one has the right to the expectation of privacy, I am surprised it took this long for this to leak out. Also, keep in mind that one of the primary objectives of the drone project is the weaponization and use against a domestic target,” he said.

O’seland said if Americans allow the government carte blanche to perform surveillance with drones, they open themselves up to further intrusion as technology advances.

“The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and several universities and private contractors have already fit insects with remote controls and audio/visual devices under the claim of ‘we need these to look for things like trapped miners,’” said O’seland. “No to drones! As citizens, we have a fundamental right to privacy in our own homes, no matter what the courts, or politicians, say. I feel we should watch and see the response the first time a drone is used against a ranking politician to see how quickly the rules get modified.”

Wesselhoft announced Wednesday the measure would be carried over to the next legislative session, pending an interim study on privacy issues related to drones. The move comes as a result of opposition to the legislation from the office of Gov. Mary Fallin.

“Of course, we’re disappointed that we won’t be able to do more this legislative session,” said Wesselhoft. “I will seek [House] Speaker [T.W. Shannon’s] approval of an interim study that at least keeps the issue alive.”

The governor’s Secretary of Science and Technology, Dr. Stephen McKeever, and the governor’s chief of staff asked Wesselhoft at the ACLU to table HB 1556 due to concerns the legislation would jeopardize the state’s application with the FAA to serve as an unmanned aerial systems test site.

But after reviewing the application, Wesselhoft and the ACLU of Oklahoma strongly disagree with that conclusion.

“That just doesn’t add up,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma. “The FAA’s own application says a state can still receive the highest score available to an applicant if they can demonstrate how the proposed law would not affect the test site.”