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Time to prepare for drones in New Jersey

The drones are coming. And it’s time we get ready for them.

The following op-ed appeared in the Star Ledger on January 5, 2014. It was written by ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin.

By the end of 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to permit "unmanned aircraft systems" — or drones — into U.S. domestic airspace. It has conservatively predicted approximately 7,500 drones will be buzzing in our skies within the next five years, and up to 30,000 drones within 20 years.

These drones are expected to make critical advancements in firefighting, search and rescue, and other public safety tasks, in addition to widespread commercial and artistic uses. But while they may enhance law enforcement capabilities, we must proceed carefully to ensure our rights to privacy do not fly out the window along with our drones.

New Jersey lawmakers have recognized how law enforcement drones, without basic checks and balances, can lead us down the path to a surveillance society all New Jerseyans would reject. Bipartisan groups of state lawmakers, led by Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer) and Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), have advanced bills (A4073/S2702) that would put basic rules in place to regulate police drones. The Legislature should put these sensible protections from drone surveillance before Gov. Chris Christie for his signature as soon as possible, and he should sign them.

Although we all want officers to have the best possible public safety tools at their disposal, we must make sure there are reasonable limits in place to guard against abuses of this incredibly powerful technology.

Among other provisions, the bill unanimously approved by the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee in December would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant to use a drone to conduct surveillance or gather criminal evidence, with an exception for emergencies. It would also require law enforcement agencies to discard surveillance footage collected by drones unrelated to the criminal investigation within 14 days of collection, prohibit the sharing of that content with third parties, and prevent the weaponization of drones.

This legislation would not impact the use of drones by private parties, such as Amazon, which plans to employ them to deliver packages to New Jersey homes.

We already know that researchers are developing drones that will be small enough to fly into houses undetected, drones that can operate silently, and drones with facial recognition technology. The implications for our privacy are substantial. With estimates that drone spending will reach $89 billion over the next decade, we can expect even more significant enhancements soon.

Although the technology at issue here is new and rapidly developing, the concerns driving this bill are not science fiction. Indeed, one of the great civil liberties challenges of our era is determining how to embrace technology’s benefits while making sure we don’t sacrifice our values in the process. As technology advances, so must our privacy laws.

New Jersey is not the first state to consider passage of basic regulations of law enforcement drone use. As of today, eight states, including Idaho, Oregon, Illinois and Texas, have passed drone privacy statutes similar to the one New Jersey is considering. Thirty-five other states are considering similar legislation.

Americans know the implications of allowing surveillance technology to expand without putting basic controls on it. As we learn more about the collection and mining of our personal information by federal intelligence agencies, we are reminded of the dangers to our democracy of unchecked surveillance powers.

While police departments have not responded openly to inquiries about plans to deploy them next year, we have good reason to believe drones will be popular here. Rutgers University, together with Virginia Tech, plan to test drones in New Jersey, making us one of six sites in the country studying how drones can operate in U.S. airspace. Christie boosted the Rutgers program by signing a letter of support to the FAA along with the governors of Maryland and Virginia.

Whenever they arrive, the drones that will fly through New Jersey skies need not become a privacy nightmare. For once, we have the opportunity to get ahead of the privacy curve, not play catch-up after it’s too late.

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