N.C. takes cautious approach on drones

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 3, 2014

As much public criticism as North Carolina lawmakers have received lately, they deserve some credit for doing something that hasn’t gotten them very much attention.
They grounded the drones.
Or, they pretty much did.
As debate rages around the country about government’s use of unmanned aircraft and when that use could violate people’s privacy rights, North Carolina legislators put a provision into the state budget that grounds their use by state and local government, in most instances, for two years.

Meanwhile, legislators are studying what kind of permanent limits might be placed on their use. The state restrictions come as the feds have restricted unmanned aircraft’s use for commercial purposes.
The state law does allow for the state chief information officer to make exceptions, and research on their use is taking place at several locations in the state.
But without one of those exceptions, no state or local government entity can buy, operate or procure the services of anyone operating a drone or disclose personal information about anyone acquire with their use.
The word apparently had not gotten to a media nonprofit formed by several Wake County towns. It was still flying, and posting on YouTube and elsewhere, drone footage from a unmanned aircraft that it bought last fall. It stopped once contacted for a story by the NC Insider (for which I serve as editor).
Apparently lost on the fellow who heads up the nonprofit is just how susceptible an unmanned aircraft armed with cameras, microphones or thermal imaging devices is to misuse.
With such aircraft having the ability violate the sanctity of homes or hover about private property, it is incumbent on state legislators and the federal government to come up with rules for their use.

Some law enforcement officers are urging lawmakers not to tie their hands. One of them, Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram, wrote to the legislative committee studying their use that no legal distinctions should be made between manned and unmanned aircraft.
He went on to write that unmanned aircraft could be deployed “more quickly and with less expense.”
Isn’t that kind of the point?
Given how inexpensive the unmanned aircraft are now, and the likelihood that they will be even cheaper in the future, doesn’t that invite them to be used by government in ways that manned aircraft currently are not?
Just last week, legislative chambers in Washington and Wisconsin approved legislation that would narrowly restrict their use by state and local government without a search warrant. In the case of the Wisconsin bill, no evidence gathered by drones without a search warrant could be used as evidence in a criminal case.
The job of law enforcement is catching the bad guys. It is understandable that they would want the use of a tool that could help them do that job.
The job of protecting civil liberties falls to lawmakers and the courts. To do that job, some kinds of restrictions on this technology are going to be required.
Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina government and politics for Capitol Press Association.