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Privacy bill aims to outlaw killer drones in the US, regulate UAV surveillance

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Still from "5,000 Feet Is The Best" by Omer Fast
Still from "5,000 Feet Is The Best" by Omer Fast

The leak of a confidential memo detailing the US government's justifications for drone strikes on American citizens opened the floodgates for new criticism of the Obama administration's secretive counterterrorism program. Now members of Congress have outlined a bill that would ban the use of weaponized drones within the United States, and put restrictions on law enforcement's ability to use them in surveillance operations.

The proposed bill, called the "Preserving American Privacy Act" (PDF) comes from Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), and is being co-sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a privacy-minded Congresswoman and noted SOPA opponent who is also leading the latest attempts to reform draconian computer crime laws in the wake of Aaron's Swartz's death. As written, it would ban police from operating unmanned aerial vehicles armed with weapons of any kind, and any drone surveillance operation would require a warrant notifying the target within 10 days, except when the notice would "jeopardize" an investigation. It also requires they make efforts to "minimize" the amount of data collected or shared, to avoid violating privacy unnecessarily. Poe attempted to pass similar legislation last year which limited surveillance to investigating felonies, but the bill died in committee with 26 co-sponsors.

Fears over the use of drones have increased lately as both President Obama and his counterterrorism chief John Brennan refused to answer whether lethal strikes could be used against American citizens on US soil. Last week, Charlottesville, Virginia became the first US city to pass a resolution banning the use of drones. The city of Seattle was also forced to scrap its own drone program after a massive public outcry.

President Obama refused to answer whether lethal strikes could be used against American citizens on US soil

Members of law enforcement have long argued that drones could be helpful in rescue operations and extreme situations. Earlier this week, a report suggested — but did not confirm — that the LAPD had deployed drones in the manhunt for spurned ex-cop Christopher Dorner. Meanwhile, other police departments in counties of Florida, Texas, and elsewhere have already received authorization from the FAA to fly drones as part of a Department of Homeland Security initiative to expedite their adoption among law enforcement.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been diligently tracking these authorizations from crowdsourced data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests sent to local authorities. Their latest list raises the total to 81 public entities who have requested authorization, all of whom would be subject to the restrictions outlined in Poe and Lofgren's draft bill. Check the source links below to see the full text of the proposal.