The legislation would authorize the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to track and shoot down private commercial drones that they deem a “threat.” According to the bill, the government could “identify, seize or destroy errant drones” that threaten a “covered facility or asset.”
But some groups say the bill’s broad language would give officials too much authority.
India McKinney, a legislative analyst with digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Fortune that the bill raises several concerns about free speech and unreasonable seizures. “The bill does not distinguish between ‘commercial’ and other ‘private’ drones,” McKinney said. “So the risk is to everyone, [including] journalists getting footage of unaccompanied child detention centers, citizen journalists taking footage of protests, as well as potential delivery drones.”
Echoing McKinney’s concerns, ACLU senior legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani told Fortune, “Congress should not use the aviation and disaster relief bill as a vehicle for controversial legislation that expands warrantless surveillance and interferes with press freedom.”
Beyond First Amendment freedoms, McKinney added that this bill would allow the Justice Department and Homeland Security Department to track a drone that they deem threatening by intercepting communications between the device and its operator, such as images collected by the drone or communications between various operators.
In a letter to the House Homeland Security Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked for authorization to down drones, pointing to the threat they allegedly pose. “Commercially available drones can be employed by terrorists and criminals to drop explosive payloads, deliver harmful substances, disrupt communications, and conduct illicit surveillance,” Nielsen wrote.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have quietly been using their own drones for surveillance. Last year, Boston police spent $17,454 on three drones for surveillance purposes in a predominately black and low-income neighborhood, Kade Crockford, the director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project, wrote in a blog.
As Freddy Martinez, the director of Lucy Parsons Labs, a police accountability nonprofit, wrote for the Chicago Reader earlier this year, legislation passed in the Illinois House would expand police use of drones to monitor large public gatherings like protests. The legislation also proposed arming drones with cameras and facial recognition technology.
“We should be cautious about giving the FBI any f*cking power,” Martinez told Fortune. The proposed federal bill will give law enforcement agencies too much power with very few channels for accountability, according to Martinez, who says “there are limited resources for someone to bring an abuse claim to the DHS and the FBI.” He added, “There is limited evidence of drone abuse by citizens, but numerous examples [of abuses] by the police.”
The House will vote on the FAA budget bill on Wednesday, at the earliest.