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N.C. Opinions: Winston-Salem

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Regulate eyes in the sky

From an editorial in Sunday’s (Winston-Salem) Journal:

Airborne drones are already with us, and the day is close when North Carolina law enforcement agencies will want to use them. The General Assembly must write appropriate regulatory legislation before the skies are full of spying eyes.

During the 2013 session, representatives tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill that would have protected the privacy of law-abiding North Carolinians. Now they are back at work, seeking the privacy safeguards that also allow public safety officers to effectively use the emerging technology.

The House Study Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems knows that drones can be abused. Using high-tech cameras with telescopic lenses, drones can intrude on the privacy of citizens much as peeping toms do. But, drones also offer police a new tool in tracking down wanted criminals or watching a venue where evidence suggests criminal activity under way.

As the committee begins its second try at crafting appropriate legislation, we hope it will keep the strengths of House Bill 312 in mind. That bill would have required a search warrant before police could use a drone to spy on suspected persons or to watch over a point of suspected criminal activity.

That bill also correctly provided exceptions to the warrant requirement. Drones could have been used when law enforcement had solid reason to believe that harm to life, property or criminal evidence was imminent or that a suspect was about to escape. As a check on abuse, the bill also said warrantless drone use had to be reported quickly to the proper authorities.

Drones could serve a great many purposes beyond the most likely, and many of those might be beneficial, such as traffic or crowd control.

With unexpected uses, however, there may be unexpected abuses of technology. Therefore, the study committee must be imaginative in forecasting how citizen privacy might be abused and how it must be protected.

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