In late December 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its “Privacy, Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Unmanned Aircraft Systems Working Group” best practices recommendations for government drone use. The 11 page document does not contain the word “warrant,” nor any recommendations to federal, state, or local law enforcement about getting judicial approval to use drones to monitor people.
The best practices DHS offers mostly concern basic data security issues, including recommendations to delete data when it’s not needed, to limit collection where possible, to be (a little—not too) transparent with the public about drone acquisitions and operations, to avoid mission creep, and to refrain from spying on people based on their political views or protected class alone.
Those are all good things, but these recommendations are just that—suggestions. The document isn’t legally binding. And it completely avoids tackling a very important issue: judicial oversight and approval of police drone use. There’s little chance that congress will pass legislation mandating that police get warrants to use drones any time soon, so the responsibility for filling in the gap falls to state legislatures and courts.
While at least 20 states have passed laws to regulate drones, many of them don’t put any restrictions on law enforcement. Maine and Virginia require police to acquire warrants before deploying drones in most circumstances. The Drone Privacy Act in Massachusetts would require that police get a warrant before spying on us with drones, and ban the use of weaponized drones among state and local law enforcement.