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April 08. 2014 9:59PM

Privacy foremost at hearing on NH bill to restrict government spying, commercial use of drones


The use of camera-equipped drones would be restricted under House Bill 1620, which is before the Senate Judiciary Committee after being passed overwhelmingly by the House. (ISTOCK)

CONCORD — Privacy rights were front and center on Tuesday as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on a House bill that would restrict the use of commercial drones in New Hampshire.

House Bill 1620, which would regulate the use of aerial drone photography and broadcasts by government agencies and private individuals, cleared the New Hampshire House on March 12 and was passed to the state Senate on an overwhelming voice vote.

The bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said the measure was needed to protect privacy rights as the use of unmanned aircraft becomes more widespread.

Kurk has worked for more than two years on a bill he says balances the privacy rights of New Hampshire citizens with potential benefits of drone technology.

Curtis Barry, who represents the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters, said the bill still doesn't go far enough in addressing the concerns of media outlets, many of whom plan to use drones for aerial photography and event coverage instead of costly news helicopters.

Hoping to address those concerns, Kurk amended the bill to create an exception for newsworthy events or events to which the public is invited.

Barry said the bill establishes restrictions on drones that do not apply to helicopters or other forms of aerial newsgathering, and leaves open the question of what is really "newsworthy" or "open to the public."

Freelance journalist Darryl Perry, co-chair of the New Hampshire Liberty Party and owner of Free Press Publications, said the question of whether an aircraft is manned or unmanned has no relation to privacy concerns.

"I fully support the intent of the legislation," he said, "However, I do have a couple of concerns, especially the issue of what is deemed to be newsworthy and how one construes events to which the public is invited."

Perry wondered if a sporting event is an event to which the public is invited, or an event to which only people who have tickets are invited.

"I could see an issue where the Goodyear blimp flies over a football game, and since the blimp has people inside of it, that's OK," he said. "But if they get rid of the pilot and operate it remotely, then under this law, that could become illegal."

Photographer David J. Murray, of ClearEyePhoto in New Castle, told the committee he does a lot of aerial photography and would like to use drones in his work.

"I am not a spy, and I'm not out to violate anyone's privacy," he said. "I would just like to use drones for the same kinds of purposes I currently use other devices. We already have very clear laws about what a photographer can and cannot do from planes and balconies and from windows looking down. Those laws are sufficient to protect legitimate privacy concerns."

Murray suggested the law be revised so that surveillance restrictions do not apply to any activity where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Devon Chaffee, executive director of the N.H. American Civil Liberties Union, urged the Senate to take a hard look at the provisions of the law that would affect private use.

"Many states are only addressing government use," she said. "So we would ask that you look very carefully at the private-use section and continue to find a fix or compromise that will adequately protect First Amendment rights."

As far as restrictions on government or law enforcement, Christopher Casko, an attorney for the Department of Safety, said Kurk's legislation strikes an appropriate balance between personal privacy and the legitimate use of drones by government by prohibiting surveillance without a warrant.

"We are not aware of any government agency at this point using drone technology," he said, "but at some point in the future we may very well need to use these for law enforcement, and the exceptions set out (in the bill) allow for necessary uses."dsolomon@unionleader.com


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