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Proposed drone ban called bad for NH business

Union Leader Correspondent

March 04. 2013 7:12PM
Gordon Jackson of Nashua recently purchased a radio-controlled drone aircraft with a camera attachment for his digital photography business. (KIMBERLY HOUGHTON PHOTO)

NASHUA - A local photographer is speaking out against proposed legislation that he claims might impede upon his ability to make a living.

A proposed bill, sponsored by Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, prohibits certain uses of drones by state agencies and individuals, with limited exceptions.

The legislation, a newly amended version of House Bill 619, prevents aerial photographs to be taken from the air by a satellite, drone or any other device not supported by the ground if a person can be identified in the footage.

"This is a perceived threat that, with no precedence, borders on paranoia," said Gordon Jackson of Nashua, owner of Gordon Digital Media Management. Jackson, a pilot and commissioner for the Nashua Airport Authority, said that while he agrees some safety measures should be put into place regarding drones, the proposed bill is not appropriate in New Hampshire.

"The efforts are laudable, but laughable," he said. "This bill essentially shuts the door on us photographers and prevents ingenuity. This is America. This is the type of creativity that stimulates us, and for (Kurk) to put a clamp on it is quite unfortunate."

About two months ago, Jackson purchased a Phantom radio controlled aircraft unit with GPS tracking, which he intends to incorporate into his photography business.

A small camera can be attached to the small flying mechanism operated with a remote control, allowing photography in areas that may not be accessible by a photographer without the expense of a helicopter, according to Jackson.

At the age of 72, Jackson has been a photographer for about 50 years. This new drone technology can significantly enhance photographic abilities, he said.

"It opens up all sorts of opportunities for me," said Jackson, who hopes to someday use the device for architectural and engineering surveys.

It has countless possibilities, according to Jackson, who said the drone could be used to photograph the underside of a bridge that is in failing condition, survey high power lines and oil lines, or even something less intense such as photographing a marching band from an aerial view.

"These would all be for the public good," argued Jackson, who has shared his concerns with the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Rep. Phil Ginsburg of Durham responded to Jackson's concerns in an email, saying the committee is sympathetic to commercial concerns and discussed the matter at length.

"I believe you'll find, if you read the bill carefully, that there are provisions that will protect the commercial use of drone technology while still protecting the private individual," wrote Ginsburg. "We thought the two interests were not incompatible, and the privacy of the individual citizen is of paramount importance."

According to the text of the proposed bill, a person would be found guilty of a misdemeanor if they knowingly create or assist in creating an image of the exterior of any residential dwelling (building or structure that is occupied by at least one person) by or with the assistance of a satellite, drone or any device that is not supported by the ground.

The regulation shall not apply where the image does not reveal forms identifiable to human beings or man-made objects, says the legislation, meaning the bill would allow aerial photographs taken at a height from which people can't be identified.

The bill, as proposed, would bar governments and citizens from using the small airborne devices and capturing sounds and images of people on the ground. Exceptions would be allowed for searches conducted with a warrant.

"The assumption by Kurk that these devices are largely used for nefarious purposes is just that - an assumption," said Jackson, former station manager at WYCN TV13 in Nashua. "To let such opinions stand in the way of technological advances is absolutely archaic in this day and age."

As a small-business owner, Jackson said he is perturbed that New Hampshire government is considering interfering with his right to make a living and advance his career.

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union is supporting the proposed bill, recently submitting written testimony to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

According to a letter from Devon Chaffee, executive director of the NHCLU, the amended bill helps keep state privacy laws up to date with surveillance technology, prevents the use of drones to engage in mass surveillance, keeps New Hampshire safe from weaponized drones and also allows drones to be used in limited emergency circumstances.

"Drones are increasingly becoming smaller, smarter and less expensive, with more developed surveillance capabilities such as night vision, high-power zoom lenses and see-through imaging," says Chaffee's letter. ". No one should be spied upon unless the government believes that person has committed a crime."

He goes on to explain that the proposed bill will still allow the use of drones in certain limited circumstances where swift action is needed to prevent imminent harm to life or serious damage to property, including search and rescue missions and firefighting.

Drones shall not be equipped with a bullet, laser-ray or any other kind of lethal or nonlethal weapon, according to the proposal.

"The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying video surveillance machines threatens to allow for pervasive surveillance, police fishing expeditions and abusive use that could eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities," Chaffee said. "HB 619 will ensure that New Hampshire law keeps up with this powerful technology, ensuring that it is tightly regulated."

Jackson argues that existing privacy laws already sufficiently cover these areas of concern in New Hampshire. The question of enforcement is also significant, Jackson said, because it is virtually impossible to detect whether a tiny airborne device has a camera attached.

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