Regulating drones: lawmaker action in California, Texas

U.S. skies are scheduled to officially open to civilian drones by 2015. This has legislators trying to get ahead of the invasion, which has varied implications. Drone makers tout potential positive uses for the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — including allowing civilians to fight the power, both of government and business — but privacy concerns abound.

• The California State Senate this week approved a bill regulating drones. Among other things, SB 15 imposes civil and criminal penalties on UAVs that invade privacy. This means unmanned drones that take photos or recordings of private property without permission can be fined. The bill also forbids drones from being equipped with weapons.

“While public and privately operated drones may have legitimate applications, such systems present new challenges to the privacy and due process rights of all Californians,” the bill’s author, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, said in a statement. SB 15 now goes to the Assembly.

• A similar bill passed in Texas over the weekend and sent to the governor would criminalize the use of drones for surveillance of private property, although it reportedly has more than 40 exemptions. They include the use of drones by law enforcement and the military, the news media and others. Another notable exemption of HB 912 is one that allows drone surveillance within 25 miles of the U.S. border, according to Ars Technica, prompting concerns about possible exploitation by anti-immigrant groups. One lawmaker said that provision was meant for law enforcement.

Last year in Dallas, a civilian-owned, camera-equipped drone took photos that led to the discovery that a meat-packing plant was dumping pig blood in a creek. Under HB 912, this type of thing — exposing corporate wrongdoing — would not happen again, at least not without the citizen facing charges or fines.


Photo from Associated Press archives


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  • Doug Pearson

    You said, “unmanned drones that take photos or recordings of private property without permission can be fined.” That’s restrictive in California where a large percentage of the land is public; it’s REALLY restrictive in states where only a small percentage of the land is public.

    What is private property, in this usage? Could a drone be considered in violation because it captured a man illegally cutting trees on public land and loading them onto his truck–and the truck is considered private property?

    I’m not comfortable with the idea that a drone can photograph my house at will, even though Google has a nice photo of it, apparently captured by a satellite. But I’m also not comfortable with the idea that a drone is prohibited from photographing my house at will.

  • Levi Sumagaysay

    Here’s another comment, from reader Mark Harrison:

    You should note that the exemptions cover all the “common sense” cases:

    – #6 “with the consent of the individual who owns or lawfully occupies the real property captured in the image”

    – #16 “of public real property, or anyone on that property”

    – #10 “at the scene, or suspected scene, of hazardous materials”
    i.e. on public property, on private property with permission of the owner, and
    while photographing hazardous materials.

    If you take out all the references to government employees, it seems a quite reasonable approach to privacy protection from aerial cameras.

    He has more on his website: