AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine law has fallen behind the times in regulating technological snooping devices, a legislative committee was told Tuesday as it was asked to consider setting ground rules for the use of drones by state and local law-enforcement agencies.
"Big Brother is no longer the stuff of science fiction," Sen. John Patrick told the Judiciary Committee as it held a hearing on the Rumford Democrat's bill.
The measure would regulate police agencies' acquisition and operation of the unmanned aerial vehicles and would require a warrant in most cases before police could use drones for surveillance.
In describing the emergence of remotely operated devices, Patrick said they are equipped with powerful video cameras, infrared sensors, license plate readers, listening devices "and other technology to monitor people in activities on the ground."
"Drones can be as big as a plane and as small as an insect, and can fly among people, or hover over their backyards undetected," the senator added.
While people are familiar with the use of drones in military operations, few are aware of their emergence in domestic law enforcement applications, he said.
In Maine, no one keeps track of who uses drones. While no police are known to use them, some private groups like land surveyors do.
The American Civil Liberties Union's Maine chapter, which asked Patrick to champion the bill, has made privacy issues a priority this year. The group says that in order to be legally used, the targeted person would have to give consent, a warrant or court order would have to be issued, or an emergency situation would have to be in progress.
"The problem is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be too late," warned the ACLU chapter executive director Shenna Bellows. "It makes no sense at all to allow untrammeled surveillance of Mainers' homes and backyards by law enforcement or any other governmental entity."
While acknowledging privacy concerns, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said the bill does not address legitimate uses of drones for purposes such as tracking forest fires and floods, finding lost hikers and hunters, and monitoring accident scenes.
"Arguably, it prohibits the use of remote toy airplanes children use in their backyards," Mills said in written testimony. But Mills agreed that a protocol should be put in place before drones become commonplace in Maine.
State police Lt. Col. Ray Bissette also opposed the bill in its present form, saying it needs to address more than just law enforcement uses.
Dan Bernier, representing Maine surveyors, expressed concern that the bill could hamper the use of unmanned devices to aid in aerial mapping.
The ACLU says 21 other states are considering bills to limit drone use, and Virginia has passed a law imposing a two-year moratorium. In Arizona, a bill requiring state and local law enforcement agencies to get search warrants before using drones to gather evidence in a civil or criminal case is working its way through the Legislature.
Earlier this month, Seattle's mayor ordered the police department to abandon its plan to use drones after residents and privacy advocates protested.
The Federal Aviation Administration is aware of privacy concerns and has posted online a draft plan for protecting people's privacy from drones.
Christopher Taylor, owner of Viking Unmanned Aerial Systems of Limington, brought a small drone with him to the hearing Tuesday but was not allowed to display what's considered a prop in the committee room. Instead, Taylor offered a pilot program to demonstrate the potential law enforcement applications of the devices.
"We have a technology that's advanced, and until we understand how this technology can be applied, (it's premature) to get into privacy issues," Taylor explained following the hearing.