Unmanned drones are an issue not only at the national and international level but also in Illinois and even Champaign County.
And an official with the American Civil Liberties Union believes they will become a greater concern as the use of inexpensive, technologically advanced radio-controlled planes and helicopters, as well as more expensive drones, expands.
The Illinois ACLU is behind legislation (SB 1587) sponsored by Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Chicago, that would restrict the use of drones by law enforcement agencies.
But the bill doesn't address drone use by private citizens.
It's all part of a rapidly evolving discussion, said the ACLU's Ed Yohnka.
"It would affect every law enforcement agency in the state of Illinois," Yohnka said, "but what it would actually do is still taking shape. We're still talking to law enforcement agencies. They have some ideas. They have certain exceptions and exigent circumstances that, candidly, are not unrealistic or outrageous."
Yohnka said the ACLU wants to limit how drones might be used for warrantless searches by law enforcement.
"If there is a warrant, a reasonable purpose for doing it that they can articulate to a judge, with some exceptions that we haven't heard yet, those are things we're trying to get at in terms of making sure that the technology — which I think everybody understands can be a tool for good — doesn't become a tool for monitoring and surveilling people in a blanket way," Yohnka said.
Virginia lawmakers recently approved a two-year ban on drone use by police and government agencies, with some exceptions.
"Our view is that trying to hold back technology like that is like trying to put your finger in the dike," Yohnka said. "So because of the nature of these and their power to surveil, the more reasonable course as opposed to barring them is to put some sort of modest regulations in place from the beginning."
He said the ACLU doesn't believe authorities in Illinois are using drones.
"We wanted to get out ahead of this as opposed to playing catch-up," he said. "In terms of private use, that's a trickier question. The honest answer is we don't know."
In Champaign County, the best guess is that it's private citizens who are flying what are broadly described as drones over parts of the county. Some residents of north Champaign have complained to county board members about mysterious objects flying over their neighborhood; county board member Jon Schroeder of rural Sadorus said a neighbor saw a drone flying over a farm field; and board member Jim McGuire concluded that there are "a lot of these people who are flying these hobby planes and helicopters."
Sheriff Dan Walsh acknowledged his office has a drone but that it is inoperable. Before that, he said, it was used only for "line of sight" test flights over parks in east Urbana and St. Joseph.
He said he doesn't plan to repair his office's drone or purchase another one, but that he would accept a donated drone and might consider buying another one.
For now, he wrote in an e-mail, "I would wait and see what if any laws get passed concerning this matter as well as the price and capabilities of such units."
Some people have urged the county board to act now to restrict law enforcement's use of drones.
"We do need an ordinance passed on the guidelines for how long they're being used, what they're being used for, how long they can be used, are they allowed ... to stalk, to follow, racial profiling?" said Champaign resident Linda Turnbull, who said objects have been flown over her neighborhood.
Diane Visek of Urbana said drones potentially "are a threat to privacy" and used the example of political protesters.
"Individuals gathering for a peaceful protest would probably feel threatened by a drone monitoring their activities," she told the county board. "They would have no way of knowing whose drone it was and would probably feel that their peaceful political expression would lead to trouble later. Do we want our citizens to feel like they are living in a police state?"
But county board members don't appear to want to regulate the sheriff's use of drones, said board Chairman Alan Kurtz.
"If we do anything about drones and then the state comes in and brings in their regulations and their statutes to do it, it will supersede us. So I don't see any point in us wasting our time at this point since there is no immediacy with the problem of drones," Kurtz said.
Sheriff Walsh said it's important to look beyond the fears about drones and to examine their potential for saving lives and money in searches for lost children, Alzheimer's victims and others who may have "gone missing."
"As you can imagine, the more time that goes by in these types of matters, the appropriate search area (and necessary search personnel) may expand almost exponentially, so having a device readily available is very helpful," he said.
They also can be valuable, he said, in accident reconstruction and crime scene photography, searches for vehicles reported missing, searches for fleeing suspects "in serious criminal matters," and for providing logistical and safety information in hostage situations and in the execution of high-risk, court-ordered search warrants.
State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, is a co-sponsor of Biss' bill to restrict law enforcement's use of drones.
"I want to be perfectly clear. There are legitimate uses for these things, but I'm not at all comfortable with some notion of what is going on in Florida with using drone flyovers to check ordinance violations. That's crazy," Rose said. "This brave new world we're in, I think we're acting before we're thinking and there are going to be ramifications.
"I don't think everyone has thought this through. There are ethical issues here. There are Fourth Amendment, constitutional liberties issues here and no one has really thought them all through."
Eventually, Rose said, there will have to be a national debate on the use of drones by private citizens. The FAA estimates that within five years there will be 10,000 civilian drones in use in the United States.
"I would go back to a very simple question: When a drone flies over your backyard and you have a privacy fence lining that yard with no line of sight to that yard, and a female is topless sunbathing, they're not expecting a drone to fly over and take a picture of them, right? So, what do we do? Where is that data going to go? Will it end up on YouTube?"
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.