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Illinois Moves to Legalize Police Drone Surveillance of Public Gatherings

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Chicago, IL – Although Illinois passed legislation in 2013 requiring police to attain a warrant before using drones for most surveillance purposes, legislation reportedly backed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel would eliminate that restriction and allow the government to monitor large gatherings, rallies and protests using drones.

The proposal— SB 2562— by state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago) would allow Illinois police departments to use drones for any “legitimate law enforcement purpose.”

“I don’t want Chicago to be the next Las Vegas-style outdoor terrorist attack. But I also don’t want drones to be surveilling everyone’s every move,” Sandoval said Thursday. “This legislation clearly is limited to drone usage for providing safety.”

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Sandoval claimed the proposal would limit police drone use to large public gatherings.

“An individual’s private event, on their own property, would not fall under the exception for law enforcement for the use of a drone,” Sandoval said. “The bill states that large scale events are events that take place at a sports or entertainment area, a stadium, a convention hall, a special event center, an amusement facility, or an event open to the public on government property.”

Despite Sandoval’s assertions, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has come out against the legislation, claiming that the change in law could allow for police to take pictures, record video, and even use facial recognition technology against peaceful protesters.

“Given Chicago’s history of surveillance against protestors and social justice advocates … the Chicago police should not be able to use this new, powerful tool to monitor protestors near silently and from above,” said Karen Sheley, the director of the ACLU Police Practices Project. “The legislation also ignores sweeping surveillance tools currently available to the police.”

Chicago police have a long history of surveillance of activists. Gizmodo reported that Mayor Emanual’s office objected to several additions suggested by the ACLU, including banning face recognition and banning weaponized drones. Additionally, Gizmodo noted that “the amendment includes no language barring drones from biometric data collection, nor does it include guidelines on how long such data is stored or who it’s shared with. Most troublingly, Sheley says the amendment opens a loophole that weakens the restrictions on drones equipped with weapons like tear gas or rubber bullets.”

“If this bill is passed, as drafted, during the next large scale political rally, drones could identify and list people protesting the Trump administration,” Sheley said. “The sight of drones overhead, collecting information, may deter people from protesting in a time when so many want to exercise their First Amendment rights….This is too much unchecked power to give to the police—in Chicago or anywhere.”

Reason reported that “the bill requires regular reporting of when police use drones and says any data collected must be deleted after 30 days unless it’s connected to a ‘criminal matter.’ It also forbids arming the drones with any sort of weapon, but only for this particular addition to the surveillance rules. Sheley worries that this new bill therefore creates a loophole that would allow police to arm drones for use in other circumstances.”

While drones can be an invaluable resource for law enforcement, critics are wary of agencies using them to monitor political activism. “The way it stands under this bill, if it’s passed, there’s a cheap tool to monitor First Amendment activity,” Sheley said, “and to collect information about who’s in the crowd and make lists of the people [attending].”

The Illinois Senate approved Sandoval’s drone rules, 36-2; the measure will now move to the House for a vote.

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