New rules governing when, where and how police departments can deploy drones in Maine took effect last month after the governor’s unsuccessful attempt to veto it and 64 other bills. The drone law ushers in a change that legislators and civil liberties advocates say will shield Mainers’ right to privacy from abuse.
Over the last few years, drones have skyrocketed in popularity. As they’ve grown more popular, concerns about privacy have grown more common as well.
The Federal Aviation Administration since 2012 has been developing rules to integrate drones into the national airspace, but these address only safety. The FAA has left it up to state or federal government to enact legal protections against misuse of drones.
Using drones, operators can gain vantage points they can’t in manned aircraft much less from standing on the ground. Operators can outfit their drones with high-resolution and infrared camera, night vision capabilities, license plate readers and facial recognition technology. The prospect concerns many, who worry that operators — particularly law enforcement — might deploy drones to snoop on private citizens.
In Maine, the new law might assuage some of those concerns. It requires police to obtain a warrant to fly a drone in an investigation, and it prohibits law enforcement from equipping drones with weapons and facial recognition technology.
In 2013, the Maine Department of Public Safety crafted a model set of guidelines for how law enforcement use drones in investigations. But supporters of the bill said this policy wasn’t enough. Instead, they said legislation is needed to make restrictions on law enforcement drone use part of state law.
“A policy can be changed at any time,” Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who sponsored the bill, said. “I commend them for [writing that policy]. But if you’re going to have a policy, why not have it codified?”
Aside from Maine, 14 states have placed limits on how law enforcement can use drones, from requiring warrants to how long data collected by drones can be stored.
“This is one targeted way for us to protect citizens’ privacy before drones become ubiquitous,” Russell said. “Just because we have new technology doesn’t mean the protections put in place by the Constitution are gone.”
Despite concerns about privacy violations, no Maine law enforcement agency has started to use drones as part of its work. Maj. Christopher Grotton of the Maine State Police said these concerns aren’t warranted. The model drone policy and Fourth Amendment case law already offer sufficient privacy protection, he said.
Much of the debate about drones has focused on hypotheticals, not actual law enforcement abuse of the technology, Grotton said. Private citizens have been responsible for the bulk of drone misuse, he added.
The FAA recorded 764 incidents between November 2014 and August 2015 of drones flying too close to commercial aircraft. That number includes one incident last March at the Portland International Jetport.
So far, Maine law is silent on holding drone hobbyists accountable for privacy violations.
“There is no specific law that gives us the authority to do anything about private individuals misusing drones,” Grotton said.
While there is the potential for misuse, drones also can be a valuable tool for police and public safety agencies. Law enforcement tout the potential of drones to aid in search and rescue operations, monitoring chemical spills and fires and surveying road accidents. They also have the benefit of keeping people out of dangerous situations, such as standoffs, and can allow police officers to say out of harm’s way until a situation is resolved.
Maine’s drone law allows police the flexibility to deploy drones in these situations, but Grotton said policies that restrict the use of new technology could unintentionally hinder law enforcement from protecting the public.
“It would be a shame to not be able to leverage that technology to help the public,” he said.