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Oklahoma Senate Committee Examines Privacy, Property Concerns About Drone Use

Matt Rourke

A legislative panel explored the rules and regulations governing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Oklahoma during an interim study Wednesday.

The Senate's Public Safety Committee examined the pros and cons of unmanned aerial vehicles, and what policies or regulations to consider when drafting legislation before the 2017 session.

State Sen. Frank Simpson wants to address the constitutional questions and public safety issues that come with using drones without stifling economic development.

“That compromise between those two will hopefully come out with some guidelines that will help us, first of all, protect our property rights and the rights to privacy,” Simpson said. “But I also want to make sure we provide the tools, via drones, to our state agencies to be able to do the things that they do.”

The Ardmore Republican said there are all kinds of new considerations for lawmakers - like the idea of "aerial trespassing."

"The person physically climbing over your fence to look around in your yard isn't any more offensive than someone flying a drone over your fence to look around in your yard,” Simpson said. “They have both violated your privacy and have violated your property rights."

Oklahoma’s state forester George Geissler told the committee drones help the Department of Agriculture count and determine tree species, and assist with wildfire response. But he said media outlets using drones to photograph and get video of those fires can pose a danger to helicopters involved in the firefighting efforts.

“Let’s face it folks, fire is a really cool visual image, so there’s all the rage to go ahead and get pictures of that,” Geissler said.

University of Oklahoma law professor Stephen Henderson said in many cases the law regarding recording from the air hasn't been declared or written into statute yet.

According to Henderson, privacy rights can conflict with other constitutional protections like freedom of speech and the press, and the prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures, eCapitol’s Cynthia Santos reports:

How police drone flight will be restricted by the Fourth Amendment depends significantly on how private persons fly their drones, he said. "If the Fourth Amendment restricts drone flight, in some sense you need not legislate that same restriction; government actors are already constitutionally bound," he said. "However, I would recommend that you seriously consider such legislation." The complication in proposing such legislation is that connect between public and private use of drones, while not overregulating either party, he said. The possible legislation also runs on a sliding scale from one to four; one being least speech protective but most privacy protective and four being most speech protective but least privacy protective. In that first category, Henderson said legislation could ban nonconsensual drone flight over private property below a certain height threshold and a ban on nonconsensual information gathering. On the opposite end of the spectrum, policy would be more "vague but more narrow," only prohibiting behavior that intrudes on a reasonable expectation of privacy of is "offensive to a reasonable person," he said.

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Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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