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A White House proposal would let police shoot down drones

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The Trump administration wants Congress to let law enforcement crack down on drones, according to a document published by The New York Times. The proposal, which apparently circulated yesterday, would let government agencies monitor any unpiloted aircraft system (UAS) flying over an American “covered facility, location, or installation.” They’d be given wide latitude to intercept wireless signals going to the drone, and if they determine that it’s a threat, they’d be able to redirect, disable, confiscate, or destroy it.

“Covered” areas could refer to the sites of search and rescue operations, wildfires, police investigations, and many other government activities. Agencies would set more specific regulations and procedures, which are supposed to “appropriately protect” privacy and civil liberties.

The draft legislation would create an exception for drones in US hacking and surveillance laws, as well as FAA aircraft regulations. Currently, intercepting UAS signals could count as wiretapping or accessing a “protected computer.” Destroying or disabling a drone, meanwhile, could count as aircraft sabotage under FAA rules. The draft states that these rules were created when drones were “unforeseen,” and if passed, the law would supersede them.

Some states have already voted on similar drone regulations. Utah lets police or firefighters disable drones that fly over wildfires, and in Louisiana, law enforcement can disable one if it endangers the public. But outside these areas, the rules are less clear. North Dakota law enforcement officers fired shots at drones during a Dakota Access Pipeline protest last year, allegedly because they were flying too close to helicopters, with no apparent legal authorization. This proposal could broadly grant that authority. The draft doesn’t specify exactly which methods officers can use to destroy drones, but it says they can use wireless jamming or “reasonable force,” and there’s nothing apparently stopping agencies from approving shooting them down.

The draft contends that this new rule would improve public safety and anti-terrorism efforts — it would let law enforcement disable drones that interfere with investigations or rescue operations, as well as drones carrying potentially harmful payloads. But it could also let law enforcement ban drone recording — an important journalistic resource — in just about any area it chooses. According to the Times, the White House will discuss the draft with Congress in a briefing today, with the intent of passing it as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.