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Bill wants to make sure drone owners aren't neighborhood spies

Robert Stanto, Houston Chronicle
Updated 2:40 pm, Wednesday, February 6, 2013

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  • Montgomery County SWAT team members are shown with a ShadowHawk drone. Police departments are seeking civilian versions of the aircraft. Photo: AP Wire Photo
    Montgomery County SWAT team members are shown with a ShadowHawk drone. Police departments are seeking civilian versions of the aircraft. Photo: AP Wire Photo

 

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As more private citizens take to the skies with drones, some state lawmakers want to make sure the unmanned aerial vehicles don't hover over your house to spy on you.

State Rep. Lance Gooden,R-Terrell has filed House Bill 192, which would make it a Class A misdemeanor to use an unmanned vehicle or aircraft to capture video or photographs on private property without the consent of the property owner or occupant. The bill is co-sponsored by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

"It was brought to my attention that it's a growing practice," Whitmire said. "Individuals and different non-governmental entities are launching drones for personal use" and there are privacy concerns. "I'm not sure if it's a huge problem, but from indication the practice will continue to grow."

Gooden, whose rural district is east of Dallas, said one of his constituents prompted him to file the proposed legislation.

"His (constituent's) neighbor was using a drone to check on his cattle and it was hovering over his property," said Gooden, 30, now in his second term of office. "He asked me, 'Does that seem right to you?' I said no, it's not right. Everyone should have a reasonable expectation of privacy on their private property."

While the federal government prohibits the commercial use of unmanned aircraft for business purposes, a growing number of hobbyists are flying drones for fun, or in the case of the Kaufman County rancher, to keep tabs on roaming livestock.

The problem, Gooden said, is that drones are amazingly agile and could be used by an unscrupulous pilot to spy on neighbors, or even worse, their children.

"With these drones, you can go absolutely into someone's backyard," Gooden said. "If their children are there playing you could use that drone to see which kids are home and which kids aren't."

His message to hobbyists: "If your hobby is spying on people without their permission, then you probably need a new hobby."

The proposed bill provides exceptions for law-enforcement agencies, which may use drones only in life-threatening emergencies such as a fire, or in the pursuit of a fleeing suspect. The proposal would allow the use of drones to track possible illegal immigrants along the U.S. border.

"Our thinking is, if we wait four or five years to pass the legislation, when everyone has one (drone) and every city is using them, then it will be much more difficult to get this legislation passed," Gooden said.

Officials at the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, which operates a $300,000 ShadowHawk drone that was purchased with federal homeland security grant funds, could not be reached for comment about the proposed bill.

In a 2011 interview, Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel said the Vanguard Industries drone would be used to provide surveillance for Montgomery County sheriff's deputies serving a warrant at a specific location, but they would not be used to track suspects' vehicles or for indiscriminate surveillance of citizens.