Massachusetts Considers Legal Protection From Police Drones

A modest plan to prevent egregious abuse

Massachusetts State House

Massachusetts State House

Ramontxotx, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

A new bill moving through the Massachusetts legislature would limit the way law enforcement can use drones in the Commonwealth. As states struggle to regulate their own drones and those of private citizens, Massachusetts is considering a bill heavy on legal protections from government overreach.

Under this law, Massachusetts would require law enforcement to obtain warrants for drone use under most circumstances, with a few exceptions. One exception is purposes unrelated to criminal investigations, with the caveat that anything recorded this way can’t be admitted as evidence. Another is in the case of a life-threatening emergency, but even then police are required to document within 48 hours why they needed to use the drone.

Beyond use restrictions, there are proposed limitations on exactly what the drone can do. Notably, the bill spells out that “facial recognition and other biometric matching technology shall not be used on data collected by an unmanned aerial vehicle, except to identify the subject of a warrant.” The type of information drones are allowed to record without a warrant is also circumscribed, so “information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities” of individuals or groups are off-limits unless they specifically pertain to a criminal investigation.

Finally, the bill addresses the need for data storage and deletion, though the answer here is modest compared to other privacy regulations. If law enforcement use a drone to surveil a home, individual or area other than the specific subject of a criminal investigation, they'll need to obtain consent from the affected parties within 24 hours of recording the data or delete it. It's a good way to limit which government agencies see the data collected by drones, though legislation considered by California (and then vetoed by Governor Brown) went further--it was explicit in banning the sharing of drone-recorded information between government agencies unless they met a list of specific criteria.

The bill is currently waiting in the Joint Judiciary Committee, where it awaits input, revisions, or approval, before being sent to the House for a second reading. According to legislation tracking site LegiScan, the bill is about a quarter of the way through the legislative process.