Mixed Bag Illinois Law Unleashes Drones on Populace, But Guarantees FR and Weapons Limits

Posted on June 20, 2023

According to The Register, a new Illinois law signed by governor Pritzker overhauls the rules regulating law enforcement use of drones, to mixed effect. The law, known as the “Drones as First Responders Act,” grants police in the state the right to use drones to respond to public safety incidents. This is a sharp departure from the state’s prior moratorium on government drone use, as stipulated under the “Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act” that the state enacted in 2014.

Despite these setbacks, the new law, which goes into effect immediately, strictly limits both the incidents for which law enforcement may use drones and the capabilities those drones may possess. To start with, the legislation broadly approves the use of drones to monitor mass public gatherings such as parades, and for locating victims in instances of mass injury and loss of life like natural disasters. The law also includes the by-now routine boilerplate allowing law enforcement to use drones more broadly in the extenuating case of terrorism.

Notably, though, the law does explicitly prohibit the use of drones for monitoring what civil libertarians would regard as the most sensitive and vital exercises of free speech. Specifically safeguarded are “any political protest, march, demonstration, or other assembly protected by the First Amendment.”

The strongest protection the law accords is in its limitations on how drones may be equipped, and how collected data may be used. Chiefly, drones may never be armed, whether with lethal or nonlethal weaponry. Drones may also neither directly utilize facial recognition, nor can drone-captured footage be analyzed with facial recognition software after the fact. This ban on facial recognition, too, is waived by the customary counter-terrorism caveat.

Despite losing ground by opening the door to government drone use in the first place, the new measures feature commendable privacy safeguards. The fact that facial recognition restrictions apply to the drone’s live video analysis and to the video it captures at any future point showcases Illinois legislators’ experience with the nuances of digital surveillance technologies. Furthermore, the outright prohibition on drone monitoring of political speech in public spaces represents a signature protection that Illinois has become known for not only in the US but abroad (as The Register is a UK-based tech news outlet).

Short as this law certainly falls compared to where civil liberties defenders would prefer, it still constitutes a step forward for protecting Illinois residents from digital surveillance. It also keeps Illinois firmly at the front of the pack of US states enshrining digital civil liberties.

You can read the full story from The Register here