June 17, 2015

Wyden, Heller Bill Requires Warrants For Aerial Surveillance

Legislation Protects Privacy; Provides Certainty for Industry and Law-Enforcement

Washington, D.C. –Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., today introduced the Protecting Individuals From Mass Aerial Surveillance Act, which requires the federal government to obtain a warrant when it conducts aerial surveillance in the United States.

As new technology like high-quality digital cameras, cellphone tracking equipment and low-cost unmanned aerial systems (UASs) have removed barriers to monitoring Americans from the air, this bipartisan legislation would create critical safeguards for Americans’ privacy, while also providing certainty about the legal framework for aerial surveillance.

“Americans’ privacy rights shouldn’t stop at the treetops,” Wyden said.

“Technology has made it possible to conduct round-the-clock aerial surveillance. The law needs to keep up,” Wyden said. “Clear rules for when and how the federal government can watch Americans from the sky will provide critical certainty for the government, and help the unmanned aircraft industry reach its potential as an economic powerhouse in Oregon and the United States.”

“Since my first days in Congress, I’ve fought to protect the privacy rights of Nevadans. As technological advancements continue to impact the daily lives of Americans, the civil liberties of the nation’s citizens must not be infringed upon by the federal government. This legislation protects those inherent rights from being trampled by the government’s intrusion from above and provides much needed clarity on what authority the federal government has related to aerial surveillance. I’d like to thank Senator Wyden for his leadership and hard work on this bipartisan legislation,” said Senator Heller   

Recent press reports have detailed numerous instances of aerial surveillance by the federal government. Under one program, the FBI has surveilled people in dozens of American cities without warrants, using a fleet of small airplanes.

To further protect Americans’ privacy:

  • The bill would apply to both manned- and unmanned-aircraft.
  • Unlawfully collected information would be inadmissible in court.
  • The government would be prohibited from identifying persons who show up incidentally in surveillance, unless there is probable cause to believe such persons have committed a crime.
  • The bill prohibits the government from soliciting to commercial/private operators to conduct surveillance that the government itself is not authorized to do.

The UAV industry and privacy advocates praised the bill.

SOAR Oregon, which represents the Oregon UAV industry, said the bill supports the growth of UAS, while protecting individuals’ privacy:

“The bill codifies aspects of surveillance where the use of UAS will have more and more relevance and value in the very near term. Because of the significantly greater capabilities of UAS in certain types of surveillance compared to manned aircraft, it is important to put in place safeguards that will ensure the information collected is not misused. This bill is an important step in this direction and SOAR supports Senator Wyden’s efforts to ensure that an individual’s expectation of privacy is protected without inhibiting the effective use of UAS as and when they are most needed to protect lives and property,” SOAR said.

“SOAR has always believed that the use of UAS in public safety applications should not be unduly hampered by egregious bureaucratic processes while recognizing that the use of UAS for one application could yield data that could be found to be useful in another. This bill attempts to clarify where such data may or may not be used and we see that to be a good step in the right direction.”

The Center for Democracy & Technology, which advocates for civil liberties voiced support for the "Protecting Individuals From Mass Aerial Surveillance Act of 2015."

“We believe the bill would establish meaningful protections from overbroad government aerial surveillance while preserving beneficial uses with less impact on civil liberties, such as government research and disaster relief, " the Center said.

The bill includes exceptions for border patrol (within 25 miles of land border), testing operations, public land surveillance, including surveying for weather-related damage, research, scoping for environmental dangers and illegal vegetation, as well for as wildlife management.

It does not impact commercial operations or apply to state and local law-enforcement agencies.