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Assemblyman’s drone proposal launches important discussion

Proposed legislation by a Brooklyn Democratic assemblyman is worth noting in this evolving age of technology and loss of privacy that comes with it.

Nick Perry introduced legislation last week that would set limits on drones used by law enforcement and other agencies in the collection and storing of evidence, including audio and video recordings, involving criminal and regulatory investigations unless specifically approved by a search warrant.

And an accompanying memo specifically states that the purpose is “to protect New York State residents from unwarranted and unauthorized use of drones or other unmanned aircraft …” singling out places of worship, close confines of property or other locations where most law-abiding citizens would expect a little privacy. As for the non-law-abiding citizens, that’s another story. The law would require certain circumstances for a drone to be suddenly launched. Otherwise, police would need to obtain a search warrant.

These days, it’s hard to be accused of being overly paranoid when it comes to privacy issues. Take, for example, the recent case of Google in its street-mapping endeavors.

The tech giant was fined $7 million for privacy invasion while using cameras to catalog street-level images worldwide.

Meanwhile, an unsupervised midlevel engineer, as the company described the employee – and of course without his bosses knowing – also collected private data left exposed by unencrypted wireless signals. Passwords, emails, medical information and even probably more mundane pieces of correspondence were left bare. And captured.

Now, multiply the possibilities in an age where drones are part of the military arsenal and made accessible for non-military personnel here at home.

The use of drones, much cheaper than helicopters, seems a natural for financially stretched law enforcement agencies. Localities have been tempted by the $300 entry fee.

While the notion of drones as ubiquitous aircraft seems a bit like science fiction, nothing is impossible. Consider how accustomed many have become to surveillance cameras.

Perry’s bill does not yet list a Senate sponsor and may wind up on the heap pile. The National Conference of State Legislatures has reported more than 30 states are considering various laws restricting the use of drone aircraft.

As well they should. Genies don’t go back in the bottle and toothpaste doesn’t go back into the tube. Drones have been extraordinarily effective in warfare. They are here to stay, and it would be naive to believe that they won’t be used domestically. But before they are put to use, it is essential that governments confront the issues they raise regarding privacy and unreasonable search.

Perry has made a start on the matter on behalf of New Yorkers. Whether his proposal balances the sometimes conflicting needs of privacy and public safety remains to be seen, but at least this important conversation has had its start.