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March 11, 2014

States wrestle with developing, restricting drones

BRIGHAM CITY, Utah — Law enforcement, government agencies and others are itching to use drones for everything from finding lost hikers to tracking shifting wildfires. But privacy watchdogs are urging state legislatures to step in and head off any potential privacy violations.

That tension is on display as more than 35 states consider drone legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The bills include ways to attract an industry that could generate billions and restrictions on drone use and data collection.

"It's in its nascent form now, but it's growing and will be growing in the future," Steve Erickson, who leads a privacy watchdog group called Citizens Education Project, told Utah lawmakers recently.

The proposed legislation comes as states are awaiting clear federal guidance on drones. Many states have taken additional steps to lure the unmanned aircraft industry, such as trying to become a federal testing site, with hopes it will be a financial boon.

The balancing act is playing out in stark relief in Utah, where there's a long history of suspicion at government intrusion and where drones are ideally suited to help authorities patrol largely rural, unforgiving terrain.

State Sen. Howard Stephenson is warning that the state needs to set ground rules about law enforcement use of drones before they become more widespread. To convince his colleagues, he played a video clip of George Orwell's "1984" in which a drone hovers and peers into windows.

"I don't think we want that type of thing happening in our society," he said. "It's a very frightening thing."

His legislation would restrict law enforcement from collecting or using data from a drone without a warrant. It also restricts the collecting and saving of any unrelated images captured by the drones, and prohibits nongovernment agencies or individuals from sharing drone images with law enforcement, except in emergencies.

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