KCTV5 Special Report: Drones debate pits press against privacy - KCTV5

KCTV5 Special Report: Debate over drones pits press against privacy

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On Monday night, Charlottesville, VA, became the first city in the country to pass an anti-drone resolution. The council promised not to use information gathered by drones in court.

The fight to keep drones out of Missouri air space is also under way in Jefferson City. State lawmakers will soon add to the debate of freedom of the press versus privacy when they discuss whether news organizations and government can deploy drones over public land.

But one university is worried because a no vote could threaten one of their programs already using the technology.

"Missourians should be assured that their basic rights to privacy are not being violated by the state or not at all," said Rep. Casey Guernsey.

Guernsey, a Republican out of Bethany, MO, made the statement Tuesday morning at a last-minute hearing on his proposed bill to limit the use of drones in Missouri.

The hearing came after KCTV5's Investigations team alerted him to a fledgling drone program taking flight at the University of Missouri. The drones in the university's program don't come equipped with weaponry to maim or kill, but they are equipped with cameras that capture nearly everything from above.

"We're talking about flying these things over public land, waterways, open fields, doing agricultural and environmental reporting," said Scott Pham with KBIA-Radio out of the University of Missouri.

Pham received a $25,000 grant to build the drones as part of a journalistic experiment. It's something he felt compelled to pursue as the technology became more accessible.

"When I heard about how common drones were getting in the hobby circles, and how much easier it is to get up in the air, cheaper it is to get in the air than it ever has been before, I just got attracted to it," he said.

Guernsey, who chairs the Agriculture Committee in the Missouri House, doesn't show the same enthusiasm for the project that Pham and, by extension, Mizzou has been doing.

"You've got to be kidding me. That's enormously disturbing to hear about," Guernsey said.

He wrote Bill 46, which would ban the use of drones or unmanned aircraft by anyone other than law enforcement. It was written in response to reports of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency flying over farmland in Iowa and Nebraska. He was unaware of Mizzou's drone program until his interview with KCTV5.

"If I'm hearing about drones being used to gather information from a news standpoint, I would say that would be at the top of my list of concerns," Guernsey said.

At Tuesday's hearing, he reiterated his concerns. At least four spokesmen from several organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Missouri Farm Bureau testified in support of Guernsey's bill, but some committee members weren't sold on the ban.

"I can see a lot of different aircraft going over. What are we looking to the skies, to see who's coming after us now," said Rep. Steve Hodges, a Democrat out of East Prairie.

"If we started making laws based on what everyone talks about, we would have some wacko laws," said Rep. Chris Kelly, a Democrat out of Columbia.

After the hour-long hearing, the Mizzou contingent tried to convince Guernsey the motives behind the program were not sinister.

"At no point do we intend to fly it over land for which we don't have the permission to fly over," Pham said.

But Guernsey wasn't convinced and stood his ground to support his proposed bill.

"I think we have a responsibility in the legislature to make sure that technology isn't being used irresponsibly," he said.

Guernsey said his bill isn't finalized, meaning language could be added to spare the academic use of drones, but stop journalists and government from using them.

The University of Missouri has not issued a statement on what if any measures it would take to block the bill.

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