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Editorial: Enact privacy law before invasion of the drones

State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) is chief sponsor legislaticoncerning drones.  |  Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) is chief sponsor of legislation concerning drones. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 6, 2013 6:16AM

Privacy will be harder to come by as a new generation of domestic drones zooms straight out of science fiction into the skies over our heads.

The unmanned aerial vehicles, some so small we won’t notice they are there, can carry high-power zoom lenses and night vision and see-through imaging equipment. They can watch you in your backyard and look through your windows.

As tools, drones can have many beneficial uses. But before privacy invasion gets out of hand, we need rules to control how they are used. On Wednesday, the Illinois Senate Criminal Law Committee will take up legislation setting limits on how law enforcement can employ drones. It’s a sensible bill, and though its backers should be open to further recommendations from law enforcement, this is a measure that should become law.

In general, the bill would prohibit using drones to spy on people unless a search warrant has been issued. Exceptions, some of them suggested by law enforcement authorities, would include countering a terrorist attack; preventing a suspect from escaping or destroying evidence; searching for a missing person; preventing imminent harm to people or property, and taking crime scene photos.

Chief sponsor Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) said the legislation was prompted by “the rapid deregulation of drones at the federal level.” More than 20 states are working on some form of drone regulation. Farthest along is the Virginia legislature, which has approved a two-year moratorium on drones that is awaiting the signature of Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Drones already are used on Hollywood film sets and at professional sports events. They monitor wildfires, keep tabs on farm crops and vineyards and track pipelines and wildlife. But if unchecked, the technology is there to leap from benign uses to the creation of a surveillance society in which clouds of drones let authorities routinely keep tabs on and record the movements of ordinary people.

The drones are coming. They even have their own lobby in Washington: The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

We need to be ready for them with a law that, while giving law enforcement the tools it needs, protects our privacy.

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