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Bill Allowing Police Drones To Surveil Crowds Heads Back To Senate Floor

A drone with a digital camera attached to it flies over a city street.
Adobe Stock
A proposal to expand law enforcement’s use of drones is now heading back to the Senate floor for a vote. Under it, drones could be used to monitor crowds of 50 or more people, among other things.

A proposal to expand law enforcement's use of drones is now heading back to the Senate floor for a vote. Under it, drones could be used to monitor crowds of 50 or more people, among other things. Democrats and civil rights activists have concerns over how law enforcement will implement the measure.

During debate on the House floor, Rep. Ben Diamond (D-St. Petersburg) read a passage from the book 1984.

"You did live from habit that became instinct in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and except in darkness every movement scrutinized," Diamond says.

Diamond says the bill raises privacy concerns and doesn't have the needed safeguards to allow law enforcement to use drones:

"Will these drones be allowed to record information? If so, for how long will the information be kept? Will the drones be allowed to use facial technology? What [are] the criteria for law enforcement to deploy a drone to surveil gatherings?"

Under the bill, law enforcement agencies have to develop policies and procedures for using drones, including the proper storage, retention, and release of any images or video captured by the drone, and address the personal safety and constitutional protections of the people being observed. But Rep. Omari Hardy (D-Mangonia Park) says that means each agency would be making its own rules for how to use drones.

"This is something that I think should not be done on a patchwork basis for the 411 local governments and the 67 counties. This is something that should be done at a statewide level. Every agency should be subject to the same standards, and no agency should be making its own policies and procedures with respect to how these drones are used," Hardy says.

American Civil Liberties Union of Florida's Kara Gross says the bill needs minimum standards for how drones will be used. She says without those standards, law enforcement can make policies giving them unfettered discretion on when and how they use drones.

"There's nothing in the bill that says that they can't weaponize drones. There's nothing in the bill that says that they can't use tear gas or anything like that in here. There's nothing in the bill that limits the use of facial recognition technology," Gross says.

Gross says there's also nothing in the bill that limits how much information will be collected, how it will be used, and who will have access to it.

"It just says that law enforcement needs to create policies regarding those things, and it's similar to having the fox guarding the henhouse," Gross says.

Gross also says the bill will allow officers to circumvent getting a warrant to collect evidence at a crime scene when using drones. Rep. Hardy says the drone bill paired with a newly signed law that increases penalties for crimes that happen during protests is bad news for Floridians.

"I am concerned that we are creating, frankly, a police state. I am concerned that we are giving the police way too much leeway, and we're giving them the tools to surveil individuals and to come after them after a protest if the police deem that protest a riot," Hardy says.

Rep. Mike Giallombardo (R-Cape Coral) is backing the Senate version of the bill in the House. He says people have to trust that law enforcement will do the right thing when it comes to drones.

"We can't keep them back in the stone age and expect them to do a job that is frankly thankless," Giallombardo says.

Giallombardo also says he doesn't expect drones to be video recording 24/7 when they're out and about.

"They're not going to record every single second as they're flying over large masses of area to get to one place or another. They just can't. The resources are not there. And storing that video feed would take a ton of storage into those servers and into those databases," Giallombardo says.

As for facial recognition technology, he says the capability is out there but doesn't know any law enforcement agencies that have it on aviation devices. The bill passed a Senate vote, was sent to the House, amended, passed, and is now heading back to the Senate for approval. Part of the change includes having the Florida Department of Management Services publish on its website a list of approved drone manufacturers agencies can use. Under the amendment, the manufacturer would be responsible for creating safeguards to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data collected, transmitted, or stored by the drones. All governmental agencies would have to buy drones from the approved list once it's published.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.