AUGUSTA — The explosion of social media and the shadowy specter of snoopy domestic drones both have civil libertarians and some legislators worried about threats to Mainers’ privacy.
So the American Civil Liberties Union is making privacy protection a priority. The group’s Maine chapter is supporting a package of bills that will go before lawmakers in the weeks ahead.
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, is sponsoring a bill requiring law enforcement to get a warrant before using domestic drones to spy on people, a bill he expects will generate lively and enlightening discussion.
Assistant Senate Republican Leader Roger Katz of Augusta is introducing a couple of bills, one requiring police to get probable cause warrants before obtaining text messaging content from people, and the other requiring a warrant before law enforcement can use geo-tracking to find people via their cellphones.
Katz noted that his bills will include exceptions, such as tracking the location of a lost person. He also noted that some police departments already follow policies he’s suggesting, and his bills would bring statewide uniformity to the law, something he thinks police would welcome.
“It’s really having the law catch up with technology here,” said Katz.
Using a California law as a model, Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, proposes requiring operators of commercial websites that collect personal information to post their privacy policies. And employers would be barred from accessing employees’ passwords to social media if a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike McClellan, R-Raymond, passes.
The ACLU said it will be working with legislators from both parties to pass the bills put forward. The group plans to present more details of the bills, which were still being drafted last week, at a news conference Thursday.
“The people of Maine care deeply about their privacy, but outdated laws and a lack of protections make us all vulnerable to intrusion into our most sensitive information,” said Shenna Bellows, the Maine group’s executive director. “Maine needs stronger privacy laws that shield us from overreaching surveillance by the government and corporations, and ensure that the most personal details of our private lives stay private.”
Patrick’s drone bill stands out as perhaps the most provocative of the package, and he says it’s time to start a discussion on that technology even though he’s not aware of any police use of drones in the state.
“I wanted to get ahead of the curve as far as the use of drones,” said Patrick. “Realistically, I think drones should be prohibited from indiscriminate mass surveillance. I don’t think drones should replace police officers on the ground.”
Maine civil libertarians are not alone in their nervousness about threats to privacy, especially through domestic drones.
In Oklahoma, the ACLU was working with lawmakers to develop restrictions on how law enforcement can use drones. The University of North Dakota, which is among the nation’s top schools in developing unmanned aircraft, has a research committee that will create guidelines to handle the legal and ethical pitfalls that may arise as the drones come into increasing domestic use, especially in law enforcement.
The ACLU said in a 2011 report that while the federal government was restricting law enforcement use of drones, some jurisdictions have received permission to test them and others were allowed to use them under specific circumstances.
An Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll last fall found 36 percent of the public opposes law enforcement drones while 44 percent supported police use of drones inside the U.S. The Federal Aviation Administration has been working on safety regulations that would clear the way for routine domestic drone flights by 2015.