If you're feeling paranoid, turn to page 41 in the newly approved state budget. Sandwiched between rather innocuous passages on motor fleet management and tax programs are the drones.
Budget section 7.16.(e) includes a ban on the purchase or operation of the unmanned aircrafts by state and local government agencies, including law enforcement, through July 2015. That's when the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to open national airspace to widespread use of drones.
But the ban contains a notable exception, allowing the little-known state chief information officer to seek exceptions to the ban if he deems the drones are necessary.
"It sounds a lot more nefarious than it really is," says N.C. Rep. Jason Saine, the Lincoln County Republican who chairs the state House's budget subcommittee on information technology. Saine says the temporary moratorium gives the state time to weigh security and privacy concerns.
However, the language also grants broad powers to state CIO Chris Estes, who is charged with managing the North Carolina's information technology systems. Estes was appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory in January. As of last year, Estes worked in the Charlotte office of Booz Allen Hamilton, the Virginia-based tech firm, defense contractor and former employer of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Snowden's leak included allegations that Booz Allen assisted the NSA in developing mass surveillance systems in the U.S. According to Estes' state government bio, his work in Charlotte focused on technology and innovation.
Under the budget provision, Estes could plan—now or later—for the use of drones in coordination with the N.C. Department of Transportation. Estes would then present a proposal to the joint legislative committees on transportation and information technology by March 2014. Even though law enforcement would ostensibly use the drones, the bill's language omits any mention of the secretary of public safety or a legislative judicial committee. Nor is it clear if private entities could use the aircraft.
There already could be an exception to the state's two-year drone ban. Richard Walls, deputy transit secretary for the N.C. DOT, told the Associated Press this week that he expects his agency will soon receive permission to develop a $2.5 million drone test site in Hyde County, a small, rural county in eastern North Carolina. Walls said the facility would test drones capable of thermal imaging for potential use in commercial farm operations.
Saine, a volunteer firefighter who backs drone usage in emergencies, says Estes shares his concern for privacy. "Someone who has concerns probably needs to get to know the CIO a little better," he says.
Estes could not be reached for comment on this story, but a spokesman with his office said he has no information yet on how Estes will handle the drone provision.
According to a Congressional Research Report published in April, an estimated 30,000 drones could fly in the U.S. within 20 years. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the report says, accelerates integration of drones into national airspace by 2015.
Already federal customs agents and the FBI have used drones in the U.S. The FAA has approved the use of drones for several local police departments, state and private colleges and small cities and towns. Earlier this year, the report says, a police force in North Dakota conducted the nation's first drone-assisted arrest.
There is a growing push from law enforcement agencies across the state to buy the relatively low-cost devices—some as light as 2 pounds—to assist in local police work. The drones can be equipped with many kinds of surveillance equipment, including cameras, thermal imaging equipment and license plate readers.
In March, the Monroe City Council, which governs a growing suburban city near Charlotte, approved and then revoked a vote to purchase a small battery-powered drone to assist in crime scene investigations and natural disasters.
The drone language in the budget was approved four months after the Monroe City Council denied the purchase.
The move by the Monroe City Council spurred the bipartisan House Bill 312 in March. Its primary sponsors included powerful Asheville Republican Tim Moffitt and Wake County Democrat Duane Hall. Saine also co-sponsored the failed legislation, which stalled in a House rules committee. It would have prohibited law enforcement from using drones without a warrant in most cases. However, the new drone language in the state budget excludes any mention of a warrant.
Saine says the ongoing concerns over privacy prompted the budget item. "There certainly are legitimate uses for the technology," he says. "But I also understand there is public concern."
Hall says he is surprised HB 312 failed, adding he believed he had the support of numerous GOP leaders.
"I'm a Democrat, but it's a libertarian issue," he says. "It's a privacy issue. Let's follow the Constitution, the Fourth Amendment. Don't let people run amok just because there's new technology. There will always be new technology."
Sarah Preston, policy director for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says her organization backed more stringent legislation such as HB 312. What they got in the state budget, she says, is an "extra layer of bureaucracy."
"Our purpose has not been that there is no use for drones," says Preston. "But if you are going to use it to collect information on an individual, you should abide by the Fourth Amendment and get a warrant."
The Congressional Research Service addressed the privacy issue in its April report. It cited Supreme Court cases in which the justices ruled that for manned surveillance vehicles, searches are constitutional in areas open to public view. For example, law enforcement officials don't need a warrant to fly over residences to search for marijuana plants in backyards and gardens because the airspace is open to the public.
In another ruling, the Court decided the Environmental Protection Agency did not need a warrant to photograph a Dow Chemical facility from navigable public airspace.
Since the state budget language is so vague, it's also uncertain what information about the drone program would be public.
Hall says he did not know of Saine's budget addendum. While Hall backs a drone ban, he's puzzled by the powers reserved for the CIO.
"My bill included exceptions too, if there's imminent harm to life or serious property damage or a fleeing subject," Hall says. "But those were judges. Those were law enforcement. It wasn't a CIO."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Flying under the radar."