Law enforcement nationwide will have to begin obtaining search warrants to conduct aerial drone surveillance, if a bipartisan Senate bill succeeds.
The Protecting Individuals From Mass Surveillance Act, a bill introduced Wednesday by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), would forbid the government from any surveillance activity employing drones and even manned aircraft, without a judge’s authorization.
While the bill applies to all federal enforcement agencies nationwide, it does not address the surveillance activities of state and municipal agencies. It also provides a “border carve-out exemption of 25 miles,” an ACLU representative told The Intercept. “For people who live within that 25 mile border zone, like Tuscon [or] San Diego, these protections wouldn’t apply.”
The bill does, however, take a broad approach to a bevy of relatively recent technological innovations that have presented new 4th Amendment questions. In addition to addressing aerial surveillance, the bill also takes aim at “cellphone tracking gear,” according to The Hill.
“Technology has made it possible to conduct round-the-clock aerial surveillance,” Wyden wrote in a statement on his Senate web page. “The law needs to keep up. 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.”
Any evidence captured by federal law enforcement without a warrant would, under provisions in the bill, be inadmissible in criminal court. In addition, the government would not be authorized to identify innocent bystanders captured by warrant-authorized surveillance footage “unless there is probable cause to believe such persons have committed a crime.”
Crucially, the bill would also curb a favored law enforcement practice that engages contractors to conduct surveillance activity that, were it carried out by the state, would require a search warrant.
“The bill prohibits the government from soliciting to commercial/private operators to conduct surveillance that the government itself is not authorized to do,” Wyden noted.