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Illinois expands use of police surveillance drones

A surveillance drone

CHICAGO – Next time you attend a parade, there might be an eye in the sky.

A new law signed by Gov. JB Pritzker on Friday expands local police departments’ authority to use drones to surveil certain events, respond to certain 911 calls, inspect buildings and participate in public relations events.

House Bill 3902 passed 56-1 in the Senate and 84-7 in the House with three members voting “present,” The law drew some concerns from civil liberties groups which ultimately led to added privacy protections and disclosure requirements.

State Rep. Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora, is pictured on the floor of the Illinois House during a May 25, 2023, debate over a bill to allow police departments to use drones to surveil crowds. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams)

The push to expand when police drone authority originated after a 2019 mass shooting at the Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, according to the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora. She and others received renewed calls after a 2022 shooting at a July 4th parade in Highland Park last year.

“I hope people are safe and that this can prevent anything else from happening,” Hernandez said.

Kenny Winslow, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, supported the measure and is already planning to offer training on the new law to police departments. He said drone technology could save lives and expects more departments to use them moving forward.

But he added that the protections contained in the bill – including requirements that police post notices if they are surveilling an event and keep a record of flight paths – were an important part of the final product.

“We’re trying to be as transparent with the public as we can,” Winslow said.

The ACLU of Illinois – a civil rights organization that has long been a voice of opposition to unrestricted drone use by police departments – took a neutral stance on the bill. ACLU staff were key architects of a 2013 state law referred to as the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act that placed significant restrictions on police drone use.

“Our concern is that this kind of technology can be used in fairly invasive ways that intrude on our constitutional and privacy rights,” ACLU attorney Liza Roberson-Young told Capitol News Illinois.

These concerns led to some key protections in the bill, including limitations on what circumstances warrant the use of drones and how long the information collected by drones can be stored.

“We wouldn’t want this to be a first step to a slippery slope to chipping away at the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act,” Roberson-Young said.

Under the new law, drones may only be used at outdoor, government-hosted events. These include events such as parades, walks, races, concerts or food festivals. These events must meet minimum size requirements depending on the size of the municipality in which they are hosted in order for police to use drones.

The law explicitly bars drones from being used to monitor “any political protest, march, demonstration, or other assembly protected by the First Amendment.”

The law also allows police to use drones when responding to 911 calls to find victims, to assist with health or safety needs or to coordinate emergency personnel.

The information collected using drones, which could include video, images, sounds or other data, may only be stored temporarily and must be deleted within 24 hours after a parade or other special event and within 30 days for most other uses. There are some exceptions where police may retain that information, such as if there is reasonable suspicion that the information contains evidence of criminal activity, if the information is relevant to an ongoing investigation or if it will be used for future training.

The Illinois Attorney General’s office can investigate police departments’ patterns and practices of drone use and compel their compliance by seeking a court order. Departments can lose drone authority for at least six months the first time they are found to violate the law and up to one year for subsequent violations.

In an interview, Hernandez encouraged people to reach out to the attorney general if they find police violating the new regulations.

“I hope people get to see that there are clear instructions in the law to prevent people from violating privacy,” Hernandez said.

The law also explicitly bans police from equipping drones with weapons, such as firearms, chemical irritants or lasers. 

The law also places significant restrictions on the use of facial recognition technology in conjunction with drones, barring police from using it during a flight and only allowing it to counter a high risk of a terrorist incident based on U.S. Department of Homeland Security intelligence or to prevent “imminent harm to life or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect of the destruction of evidence.”

But some in the digital rights world say that the law still leaves the door open for police to use other surveillance technologies that encroach on people’s civil liberties.

Beryl Lipton is a law enforcement technology and surveillance researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group. EFF was not engaged in the process of drafting HB 3902.

“It’s good that they have protections on facial recognition technology, but there are other biometric technologies that could be used,” Lipton said, pointing to gait analysis as one example.

Although Lipton said that her organization has concerns any time police use drones, she added that there are good reasons for drones to be used in some circumstances.

Ultimately, however, Lipton said that local governments should be involved in determining appropriate use of police technologies for their communities.  

“There should be a municipal, local conversation about surveillance,” Lipton said.

The law went into effect immediately after Pritzker’s signature Friday.

Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. It is funded by donations from the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government. Capitol News Illinois provides year-round, daily coverage of the Legislature, including committee hearings; state agencies and issues; state office holders; and the Illinois Supreme Court and legal matters.

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