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States mull restricting use of drones by police

SALMON, Idaho -- Worries that drones could be deployed to spy on citizens without warrants have prompted lawmakers in Idaho and more than a dozen other states to push measures restricting their use by police and just about everyone else.

Bills moving through legislatures in states such as Idaho, Montana and Arizona would outlaw the use of pilotless aircraft to gather evidence about suspected criminal activity unless police have obtained warrants.

Provisions in Idaho and elsewhere would also ban authorities -- or anyone else -- from using drones to conduct surveillance on people or their property, including agricultural operations, without consent.

Drones shot into the public spotlight this week when a commercial pilot reported spotting one as he was landing his passenger plane at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, and drone policy surfaced as an issue during efforts to confirm new CIA director John Brennan.

The numbers and uses of domestic drones are now restricted but they are expected to be widely permitted in coming years, raising fears about misuse of devices that can carry cameras which capture video and still images by day or night.

As U.S. regulators prepare to let drones take flight, local and federal lawmakers are scrambling to impose safeguards on an emerging market that the unmanned aerial vehicle industry forecasts will drive $89 billion in worldwide expenditures over the next decade.

Moves to protect privacy come as cash-strapped law enforcement agencies eye miniature unmanned aircraft costing as little as $30,000 as money-saving, low-manpower tools that could locate illegal marijuana farms, seek missing children and track dangerous fugitives.

While lawmakers in Idaho, Montana and Arizona said they celebrate advancements in the technology and even campaign to have their cities and states selected as drone-testing sites, they have been flooded with calls from constituents worried about eyes in the sky.

"We're trying to prevent high-tech window-peeping," Idaho Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder said. The Republican is the sponsor of a measure to be heard by a Senate panel that ensures police have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity as well as a warrant before deploying drones.

COUNTERTERRORISM

In the national consciousness, drones are most closely identified with the use of armed, unmanned aircraft by the United States for counterterrorism operations against Islamist militants in countries like Pakistan and Yemen.

Questions over whether drones could also be used to target Americans on U.S. soil punctuated the process to confirm the nation's new CIA director this week in the form of a filibuster by Republican Senator Rand Paul but did not derail the appointment.

Attorney General Eric Holder ultimately clarified that President Barack Obama would not have the authority to order a drone to kill an American citizen on U.S. soil who was "not engaged in combat."

The majority of unarmed drones expected to operate in U.S. airspace when federal restrictions are rolled back in 2015 -- along with those now authorized for a few dozen law enforcement agencies and universities -- weigh less than 55 pounds and fly below 400 feet, government documents show.

The devices can stay airborne for up to several hours and can be used for reconnaissance, inspection and surveillance, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

The September report says civil uses for drones would likely emerge first after 2015, while a commercial market would develop more slowly as airspace issues are resolved. Possible uses include pipeline inspection, crop dusting and traffic monitoring.

Outsized unarmed drones have already been used by federal agencies for operations along the southwest border with Mexico. NASA uses large, high-flying drones to map and investigate wildfires and collect data on hurricanes, the GAO report shows.

Proposals by law enforcement to gain drones have faced opposition in parts of California and Virginia, where lawmakers have stayed drone use by authorities and public agencies for two years. Public fears over invasion of privacy recently shot down a plan by Seattle police to deploy two camera-equipped drones.

Worries about wholesale spying are unfounded, said Mario Mairena, government relations manager with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

"We see a number of positive uses for unmanned systems that will enhance public safety, enable scientific research and mitigate disasters," he said.

Yet fears about drones snooping on citizens persist. A 2007 proposal by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to use a drone to monitor range conditions in remote areas of Idaho drew protests from ranchers whose cattle graze public lands. Many Western cattlemen said they have no less foreboding now.

"The government has too much hand in our lives as it is," said Melodie Baker, whose family has ranched for generations along the East Fork Salmon River in Idaho. "A lot of ranchers are personally afraid about how information gathered by drones would be used. It's a big concern."