by Megan Geuss
The Illinois State Police recently received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to add “unmanned aircraft” to its list of tools for the next two years. In a statement released to the Sun-Times Media Wire, the police department said that it was intentionally avoiding the word “drone” because “it carries the perception of pre-programmed or automatic flight patterns and random, indiscriminate collection of images and information.”
The state police said they worked with legal professionals and civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to minimize the privacy impact on average citizens. The force maintained that it needed the drones because “the ability to obtain accurate measurements and clear images from aerial photographs will significantly reduce the amount of time highways are closed during the initial investigation of major traffic crashes.”
Two years ago, the Illinois General Assembly passed the “Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act,”which says that the use of drones is prohibited in the state with a number of exceptions. Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Ars that back in 2013, the ACLU worked with the state police and other law enforcement agencies to put in place some ground rules before law enforcement agencies actually started incorporating drones into their work.
The ACLU pushed for a structure “that necessitated law enforcement getting a warrant before any kind of general or ongoing surveillance.”
“Law enforcement was willing to do that,” Yohnka said, although the police “wanted some basic carve outs for really exigent circumstances,” like kidnappings and car chases.
As the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act stands, law enforcement is allowed to use drones if police have a warrant, if they have reasonable suspicion that harm to human life is imminent, or if they are attempting to locate a missing person. Police may also use drones “for crime scene and traffic crash scene photography,” during a disaster or public health emergency, or “to counter a high risk of a terrorist attack.”
As for the Illinois State Police’s statement that it would not use the word “drone” in official documents, Yohnka said he was puzzled by that choice. “I don’t quite understand what that is. I don’t know if there’s a sense that drone now has a bad name,” he said.
Ars has contacted the Illinois State Police and the FAA but not yet received a response. The Great Lakes Region division of the FAA said they were still awaiting confirmation of the approval from the administration’s headquarters.