Critics of a bill to further regulate the use of drones say the proposal takes a sledgehammer to a problem that could be fixed with a scalpel, resulting in the legislation failing to find support in a Senate committee.
SB111 calls for revisions to Utah’s unmanned aircraft laws to address potential voyeurism, stalking, spying and other invasions of privacy by recreational drone users. The bill would also protect against unwarranted data collection by both civilian and law enforcement drone operators.
Federal Aviation Administration regulations already apply to drones as unmanned aerial vehicles, and a measure placing restrictions on flight around wildfires and other emergency incidents was signed into Utah law last year.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the bill’s sponsor, said SB111 would update state laws to reflect the nature of changing technology.
“In conjunction with the FAA rules, we are going to have one statewide set of rules rather than rules in every city and county and unincorporated area,” Harper said.
The bill applies broader language to drone-related issues, beyond their proximity to emergency incidents. Concerns about stalking and harassment by drone-mounted cameras were clear in Harper’s new measure.
“Every time a new technology comes up, we have people say, ‘Well it’s not a mirror, it’s a cellphone, whatever it may be,'” he said. “We’re taking that and generalizing it and saying voyeurism or stalking is what it is regardless of the technology used.”
Connor Boyack, of the Lehi-based Libertas Institute, offered some objections Monday during a meeting of the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee.
“We feel right now that the bill, as drafted, criminalizes all sorts of people who are harmlessly using their drone, such as flying it at night,” Boyack said. “Under the bill, that would be prohibited.”
He argued that people would be needlessly harmed in the effort to curb potential harassment.
“If those types of things are happening, they can be prosecuted under separate statutes like for trespassing or for voyeurism,” Boyack said. “Maybe it will happen, but in most cases, you’ve probably just got someone who’s hovering there for a moment to take a cool photo of a sunset before they move on.”
Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross spoke at the committee meeting and expressed his support for the bill. Ross said he would like law enforcement to be able to use drone surveillance without raising fears of privacy violations.
“You have a missing child that lives close to a streambed or an area that’s wooded,” he said. “How nice would it be for law enforcement to be able to put a drone in the air to view that entire area? We understand the fears and we share them. … We hope you would view this legislation as very balanced.”
Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he believes law enforcement “is always doing what they believe is in the best interest of the public.”
“I also think that proper checks and balances requires us to make sure that we don’t provide too much oversight in sole discretion of a law enforcement officer,” he said.
The concerns of law enforcement and civil liberties groups were enough to stall the measure in the committee.