Police, sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies won’t be able to use drones to spy on Floridians except in special emergencies under a law that takes effect July 1.
Gov. Rick Scott signed the “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act” Thursday, making Florida the third state in the nation – along with Idaho and Virginia — to impose such a ban.
Bill sponsor Sen. Joe Negron, a self-described libertarian, said the prohibition is necessary to protect people’s privacy.
“A lot of times legislators react to events rather than set ground rules before the events occur,” Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters. “There’s an industry that wants to sell hundreds of thousands of these drones all over the country. Before they’re up in the sky hovering around monitoring people in their cars and their backyards, I think it was a good idea to say here’s the rules we’re going to have in Florida on that. I think that we’re right on time to make sure that we protect people’s privacy.”
When asked if the law is necessary, Scott said: “The real need for this is the fact that we want our own privacy. We believe in the Fourth Amendment.”
Some sheriffs wanted to use the drones to monitor large-scale public events such as the Super Bowl. But Negron refused to budge on the issue.
The legislation (SB 92) received unanimous support in both chambers but the new law has drone manufacturers on the defensive.
The law could heighten the public’s suspicions about the unmanned aircraft although the ban is limited to law enforcement agencies, said Bryan da Frota, CEO of Prioria Robotics in Gainesville, which manufactures the 2-pound, hawk-sized Maveric. Scott visited the facility in October.
Da Frota says he agrees that laws ensuring privacy are necessary. But he’s concerned that the ban – and the name of the bill – give drones, or unmanned aircraft, a bad name.
“I’m worried that perception’s already out there because people are worried about people using technology incorrectly. You can’t fault their feelings,” da Frota said. “But at the end of the day, the technology itself is part of the future. The story we want to make sure is out there is that unmanned aircraft systems are a pretty big positive for this country and a positive for job creation and economic development, specifically in Florida.”
Florida is vying to become one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s six “Centers of Excellence,” which would make the state a testing ground for the emerging technology. He said the industry is expected to generate $13 billion over the next five years. Aerospace and research hubs on the Space Coast, at the University of Florida and in the Panhandle could help Florida win one of the six awards, expected to be named next year.
“We think that the bill even in its title doesn’t reflect some of the positive things about the industry. It’s limiting police use of drones. But in general unmanned aircraft and systems are going to be a big growth market for Florida and the entire country,” da Frota said.
Street-level surveillance cameras helped law enforcement officials swiftly capture the terrorists responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings.
Police in Florida won’t be allowed to use drones to monitor such an event, and they probably wouldn’t be as useful as cameras on the ground, da Frota said. But they would be able to use the drones to search for suspects.
Developed for the military, the airborne cameras will be used more and more for agriculture, natural disasters and by law enforcement officials to search for missing people.
Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, is a marathon runner and Boston University graduate who cheered on runners at four marathons while a college student. He voted for the measure but thought about the Boston attack when the bill was signed into law on Thursday.
“Obviously the thinking is, Sunfest is in Palm Beach County in May. What’s the harm in having a little bit of surveillance in case something bad does happen? Believe me, I’ve been thinking of it,” Rader said. “It is a great concern.”
The “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act” bans law enforcement agencies from using drones unless:
- Terror: The secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security decides a high risk of a terrorist attack exists.
- Warrant: Sheriffs, police or other law enforcement agencies first obtain a search warrant.
- Danger: A law enforcement agency has reasonable suspicion that swift action is necessary to prevent imminent danger to life, such as to search for a missing child, to prevent serious property damage or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or prevent evidence from being destroyed.