A Florida bill that would impose restrictions on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by state law enforcement officials is one signature away from becoming the first law of its kind in the country.
On Wednesday, Florida's House of Representatives voted unanimously to approve the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, a bill that would require local police to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before using a drone for surveillance purposes. Earlier this month, the Senate voted unanimously to pass the measure.
It is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk. Scott has already indicated he will sign the measure.
In a statement following Senate passage of the bill, Scot said in a statement: "This law will ensure that the rights of Florida families are protected from the unwarranted use of drones and other unmanned aircraft."
Once the bill is signed into law, Florida will become the first state in the country to have a measure that limits how state police can use drones equipped with surveillance cameras and other monitoring equipment. The only situations where police will be allowed to use drones without a warrant is if there's imminent risk to property or life or if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declares a high risk of a terrorist attack.
Several other states, including Texas, Montana, Missouri, Virginia, Nebraska and Oregon are considering similar measures. Earlier this year, Charlottesville, Va. became the first city in the U.S. to ban the use of law enforcement drones over the city's airspace.
Those other proposals would impose limits on the use of drones by law enforcement officials in most cases, while offering exemptions under specific conditions. The laws seek to address growing public concern over the prospect of thousands of drones flying over U.S. skies as the result of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
That law, signed by President Obama in February 2012, permits commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to operate over U.S. airspace. It put the FAA in charge of issuing licenses to drone operators and ensuring that they are operated safely.
The statute will initially let law enforcement authorities and emergency services use drones that weigh less than five pounds and fly at an altitude of less than 400 feet. But it requires that the FAA have rules in place permitting the use of all varieties of drones by law enforcement and private entities by the end of 2015.
By some estimates, there could be as many as 30,000 drones operating over U.S. skies in the next few years.
Many rights groups and privacy advocates are concerned that extensive drone use without serious privacy safeguards is dangerous. They have noted that drones with facial recognition cameras, license plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras, open Wi-Fi sniffers and other sensors could be easily used for general public safety surveillance in violation of privacy laws and constitutional rights.
"We have long warned about the dangers of unregulated, warrantless use of surveillance technology, and unfortunately the changes in surveillance technology have outstripped the law's ability to adapt to protect people," said Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
From that standpoint, the Florida bill is a major step forward, he said. "The fact that both votes were unanimous shows a recognition by our legislators that these protections are overdue," he said via email. "This bill is a major leap for Florida in catching up to the state of technology by putting strict controls in place that protect everyone from needless, invasive surveillance."
The drone industry and its supporters, a group that includes some of the biggest aerospace and defense companies in the world, have downplayed such concerns. They have noted that apart from some of the obvious law enforcement purposes, drones can be extremely useful in other ways, including traffic management, crop monitoring, land management, news reporting and real estate sales.
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 e-mail address is email@example.com.
Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.