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Friday, January 31, 2014

Lawmakers find it’s tricky separating good uses for drones from the bad uses

CONCORD – UNH counting moose in the wild; The Telegraph photographing the Nashua Winter Stroll; a model airplane fan documenting a family outing; Realtors documenting a house for sale – there are plenty of legitimate reasons for using flying drones to take pictures from on high.

Allowing some legitimate uses for drones while outlawing misuses for using this fast-evolving technology, such as spying on your neighbor or stalking a co-worker, is tricky business. ...

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CONCORD – UNH counting moose in the wild; The Telegraph photographing the Nashua Winter Stroll; a model airplane fan documenting a family outing; Realtors documenting a house for sale – there are plenty of legitimate reasons for using flying drones to take pictures from on high.

Allowing some legitimate uses for drones while outlawing misuses for using this fast-evolving technology, such as spying on your neighbor or stalking a co-worker, is tricky business.

“I realize this needs to be amended,” said Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, concerning his own bill that would limit government and private use of drones for surveillance (HB 1620), after concerns were raised that it would prevent news organizations from using drones. Kurk is no stranger to this topic – he proposed a similar bill last year that was tabled after questions were raised about whether it conflicted with federal law – but even so, he admitted complexities.

“We want to protect privacy, but we don’t want to prevent government from using their wonderful new tools to less expensively fulfill their responsibilities,” he said during a hearing on the bill and a related one Thursday in Concord. “It’s not my intention to prevent news gathering, but we need language to allow that to happen.”

The New Hampshire legislature isn’t the only body wrestling with the issue. The Federal Aviation Administration has outlawed virtually all commercial use of drones, including use by newspapers and TV stations, because of safety concerns; it has established five testing areas, the closest in upstate New York – to work out some issues.

The U.S. Congress is considering a couple of laws of its own about private and government use of drones for surveillance, and the Massachusetts legislature is debating what is called The Drone Privacy Act.

Kurk’s bill, among other things, would make it illegal to use powered drones (as was pointed out, it doesn’t cover kites or balloons) to carry cameras and deliberately take pictures of “a recognizable individual or a group of individuals” or their “movements, activities and communications” without permission. It also would outlaw using drones to take pictures inside buildings without permission.

Among those concerned about unintended consequences of Kurk’s bill was Jay Francis, of Merrimack, a longtime flyer of radio-controlled airplanes. That hobby has faced increasing pressure in recent years because of concern about uses and misuses of hovering drones, and Frances told the group he thought Kurk’s bill might inadvertently increase that pressure.

Francis talked about his hobby flying “quadrocopters” – a common type of inexpensive drone, with four horizontal roots that provide lift and control – to carry cameras around in parks. Taking pictures of friends or family could include pictures of other people that might violate the law, he said.

He argued that many of Kurk’s concerns were already covered by the state’s privacy law (RSA 644:9) which outlaws taking pictures or recordings of people without their permission. The key difference, he told the committee, is that the privacy law does not apply to locations where there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as a park.

Curtis Barry, a lobbyist representing the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters, expressed a similar concern.

Devon Chaffee, executive director of New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, was concerned that the bill would have a dampening effect on people’s First Amendment rights.

“Taking pictures is free expression,” she said.

Earl Sweeney, commissioner for the Department of Safety, supported the requirement that law enforcement get search warrants to used drones for evidence gathering.

Kurk spoke during hearings Thursday on two drone-related bills. The other (HB 1631) would require warrants before law-enforcement could use drones for surveillance, proposed by Rep. Joe Duarte, R-Candia.

“Nobody wants to be spied on,” Duarte said. “This would require you go get a warrant – that’s all.”

Duarte’s bill was supported by the ACLU.

Both bills will be considered by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee, which will decide whether to amend them, table them or send them to the full House for consideration.

Both bills also ban drones from carrying any weapons. They define drones as unmanned flying machines, to differentiate them from helicopters, that “uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift,” to differentiate them from rockets, that are either autonomous or remotely piloted.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).