Poe expects Judiciary Committee will act to limit spying by drones

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An aide added that the issue is a priority for Goodlatte, who is beginning his first term as chairman.

Last session, Poe authored the Preserving American Privacy Act, which would have only allowed police to use drones with a warrant and to investigate a felony.

He said he plans to re-introduce similar legislation this Congress with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), another member of the Judiciary Committee.

Drones are cheaper to build and fly than manned aircraft, making them more useful to the government for aerial surveillance. Domestic drones are now uncommon, but the Federal Aviation Administration has predicted that within 20 years, 30,000 commercial and government drones could be flying in U.S. skies. 

"I think what we need to do is make sure there are some definite guidelines for law enforcement," Poe said.

He said there should be exceptions to allow police to conduct warrantless surveillance with drones in emergencies.

"It's my opinion that Congress should take the lead on this issue, rather than wait for cases to occur, and those cases end up in different courts throughout the country," Poe said.

At the panel discussion at the National Press Club, legal scholars and privacy experts said it is unclear what constitutional limits the courts would impose on the use of drones for surveillance.

Traditionally, courts have granted people limited privacy protections when they are in public spaces. The persistent tracking made possible by drones poses new constitutional questions for the courts, the experts said.

The scholars warned that drones can be combined with other technologies, such as facial recognition software, cellphone tapping and heat scanning to further threaten privacy. 

Gretchen West, executive vice president for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, a drone lobbying group, said that drones currently have only limited technical capabilities to conduct surveillance.

She noted that her organization has created privacy guidelines for drone makers and argued that the FAA is poorly suited for regulating privacy issues.