At the start of what could be a new era in police surveillance, an Illinois legislator is proposing a limit on how law enforcement agencies can use drones -- highly sophisticated, unmanned aircraft that authorities are eyeing for aerial surveillance.
While drones could help police combat crime, they have generated a host of privacy concerns among civil rights advocates and lawmakers across the country, who worry that pervasive use of the devices could subject average citizens to unwarranted intrusion. The Congressional Research Service says their use "is bound only by human ingenuity."
In Illinois, the Champaign County sheriff's office has experimented with its own drone. The Cook County sheriff also has expressed enthusiasm about the new technology.
The proposed legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss, would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant before using a drone to collect information. The bill includes a handful of exceptions, including when the Department of Homeland Security determines such surveillance is needed to prevent a terrorist attack. Other exceptions would be cases of imminent danger or preventing a prisoner escape.
"We want to make sure that the reasonable expectation that people have for privacy is maintained," said Biss, an Evanston Democrat and former University of Chicago math professor.
"Look, right now, the City of Chicago or Cook County has a helicopter flying over the city and there's somebody looking out of the helicopter, and that's totally fine. So, what's the problem doing the exact same thing without a person? The potentially enormously invasive capacity of this drone technology."
Biss, 35, stressed that while the presence of a helicopter is impossible to miss, a drone could easily go unnoticed, meaning people would not know they are being watched.
Drones are already flying in American airspace. Some law enforcement agencies have used them for search and rescue operations, security along the U.S.-Mexico border, weather research, and scientific data collection. But Congress last year authorized the Federal Aviation Administration to open America's airspace to widespread drone flights by 2015.
Biss said his legislation is meant to prepare Illinois for the expanded drone use that will come with new FAA guidelines. The agency has estimated that more than 7,000 civilian drones could be surfing the sky within five years of 2015.
Across the nation, critics have expressed alarm at the expanded capabilities drones will give authorities. In Washington state, Seattle's police department purchased two drones through a federal grant, but gave up plans to use them after protests in February. A bill barring Virginia law enforcement agencies from using drones for two years was approved by the state's General Assembly two months ago and awaits action by the governor.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has identified more than 70 bills in nearly 40 states that address the use of drones. Some try to define what should be considered a drone and others attempt to regulate their use by private individuals and law enforcement --often requiring a court issued warrant.
The unmanned aircraft vary in size and capability. Some can be as small as a hummingbird or look like a children's remote-controlled toy, while others have wingspans as long as a 737 jetliner. They can be equipped with high-powered cameras, microphones, heat sensors, facial recognition technology or license plate readers. Similar technology has been used by the U.S. military and CIA to track down Al-Qaida operatives abroad.
Law enforcement agencies are eager to use drones because they can significantly drive down costs of surveillance by cutting fuel and maintenance bills, as well as manpower. Police helicopters can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $3 million, and about $400 an hour to fly.
Frank Bilecki, the Cook County Sheriff's Office spokesman, said his department sees cost-saving benefits in locating missing people, prison escapees or even marijuana patches. Still, he said, the office is still at the "infancy stage" of deciding if and when it would seek to obtain a drone.
Regarding Biss' bill, he said there's a need for "more discussion (about) how quickly a warrant could be apprehended to be able to do those searches."
The Champaign County sheriff's office has test-flown its own drone, but the status of its program is unclear. Sheriff Dan Walsh declined to comment for this story, but his spokeswoman said the drone was broken and the department no longer has it.
Biss' bill is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The group's director of communications and public policy in Illinois, Ed Yohnka, said the senator's proposal provides "modest" guidelines that should be put in place before the widespread use of drones begins in two years.
"If the government knows where you are, they know who you are," Yohnka said.
"That is to say if they can monitor you or (me) going to a doctor's office, a political rally, to meet with someone privately, perhaps in the context of an intimate relationship, this is not the kind of information that government should be in the business of recording and collecting about each of us."