Editorial: Protect privacy
Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 4:29 p.m.
State Sen. Rob Bradley said it's "inconsistent with the American experience" for law enforcement to use drones to spy on citizens.
"Imagine if King George had drones when there was the Boston Tea Party," said Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
Bradley — whose district includes Alachua, Bradford and Clay counties — is among the co-sponsors of a bill that would ban law enforcement from using drones to gather evidence or other information.
The measure would make exemptions if there is a high risk of a terrorist attack. It would also allow law enforcement to use drones if a search warrant is obtained or there is reasonable suspicion that swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life, serious property damage, a suspect's escape or destruction of evidence.
Those exemptions are big enough to drive a truck through them, but the bill is a good first step to regulate the use of drones. Also called unmanned aerial vehicles, drones have been used by the military in hunting down terrorists and are now gaining more civilian uses.
Gainesville is home to companies developing drone technology. University of Florida researchers are studying the use of drones in tracking wildlife. Law enforcement, including the Miami-Dade Police Department, has started using the same kind of technology.
Bradley and other lawmakers should be lauded for getting ahead of technological changes to protect privacy. Unfortunately, Bradley is on the wrong side of a similar effort to require law enforcement to have a warrant before seizing text messages, photos or other material from cellphones or other personal electronic devices.
The measure — sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg — would require police to have court approval before searching the electronic device of someone who has been arrested. The legislation includes exceptions in cases involving national security or a missing child. The bill would also ban police from tracking the location of an electronic device without a warrant.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved the measure on a 5-2 vote with Bradley as one of the two dissenting votes. He said the difference between the measures is the drone bill protects the rights of law-abiding citizens, while the prohibition against searching cellphones would apply to individuals who have been arrested.
It's a reasonable argument, but we disagree. If someone is arrested in a roadside stop for an offense such as drunken driving, it shouldn't give law enforcement an open invitation to snoop through personal communications unrelated to the offense.
Two cases pending before the Florida Supreme Court would address the issues of whether law enforcement needs warrants to track or search phones. As with the drone bill, lawmakers shouldn't wait for the courts to act and should send a strong message about protecting privacy by passing the measure.