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N.C. Opinions: Asheville

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Putting brakes on use of drones in N.C. right move

From an editorial published in the Asheville Citizen-Times on Aug. 7:

The guidelines for use of drone aircraft by governmental agencies are simple and clear: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The people who wrote the Fourth Amendment could not foresee drones, but they were wise enough to outlaw warrantless searches without specifying how the search would be carried out.

Surveillance drones, unlike the craft used to hunt and kill terrorists, are small and quiet. They can peek into people’s yards – in some cases even into their homes – without being detected. This scares a lot of people, as well it should.

The North Carolina budget contains a provision banning government agencies from buying surveillance drones for the next two years.

“The big concern about drones is they’re fairly cheap, they’re quiet, and they’re small. So if law enforcement has access to drones, there’s no telling what they could do, what kind of surveillance they could use the drones for,” said Sarah Preston, policy director of the ACLU of North Carolina.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that these drones aren’t being used to surveil innocent people without the use of a warrant.”

The law does allow exceptions, and one probably will be granted for a test range in Hyde County. The flights there, carried out by the Department of Transportation’s aviation division and N.C. State University, have been of drones designed to let farmers check soil for nutrients.

More than 30 states are considering some sort of restrictions on drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Perhaps the best approach is that of Idaho, which has passed a law requiring police to get warrants before using surveillance drones and prohibiting anyone from using a drone to photograph private property without the owner’s written permission.

At the moment, drones can be used only by police, universities and other public agencies, subject to a certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. But the possibilities of unfettered drone use are frightening. That’s why the General Assembly must address the use of drones not only by law enforcement but by anyone. We have not come this far under the Fourth Amendment only to see it shredded by technology.

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