Bill could ban drone surveillance in Missouri

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 | 5:07 p.m. CST; updated 7:41 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 5, 2013

JEFFERSON CITY – A bill that would all but eliminate the potential for drone surveillance in Missouri was met with approval but raised questions about unintended consequences at a state House of Representatives committee hearing Tuesday.

State Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, told the Agri-Business committee that he filed the bill in reaction to the Environmental Protection Agency's alleged drone surveillance of farms in Iowa and Nebraska. That surveillance was performed by manned aircraft, according to the Associated Press.

Although aimed at protecting agribusiness interests, the bill would apply to all Missouri residents. It would make it illegal to use drones for surveillance without a warrant or the permission of the person being monitored. There would be an exemption in situations when law enforcement agencies think somebody's life is in danger.

"I think it's important for us to prevent Missouri from sliding into a police-type state," Guernsey told the committee. He added, though, that protecting agricultural business interests is the primary motivation behind the legislation.

"There's a lot of people out there who have a gotcha mentality," Guernsey said after the hearing. He said there are activist organizations and government agencies that want to undermine the agriculture industry. Drones would allow them to document farming practices – without the necessary contextual understanding of agriculture business – that they could then use as propaganda, Guernsey said.

Representatives of four organizations testified in favor of the bill. One lawyer spoke against it. 

Those supporting the bill included representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners. They cited Missouri resident privacy rights, and those of farmers in particular, as reasons they support the bill.

Attorney John Davidson was the lone dissenter. He tried to illustrate to the committee the potential benefits of drone technology. He said drones could quickly identify breaks in water mains, turn off street lights that had no activity around them or serve as tools for self-defense.

"This bill simply prohibits it all, which is not the way to go," Davidson said.

Although he didn't testify during the hearing, Scott Pham, content director at KBIA/91.3 FM, spoke with Guernsey after the hearing about the implications his bill could have on the media. Pham received a $25,000 grant in 2012 to develop drones and use them for reporting.

Although the two agreed to meet and have a "frank discussion," Guernsey was unconvinced that drones should be used for journalistic purposes.

"I think there's a number of good implications for drone technology ... but still yet, Missourians should be assured their basic rights to privacy are not violated," he said.

Guernsey said he also supports a ban on intelligence gathering by manned aircraft. He said he might file a bill that would forbid that, too.

The committee did not vote on the drone-related bill.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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