North Carolina lawmakers have been moving rapidly and with little debate in recent weeks to pass legislation that will alter state law on the government use of unmanned aircraft systems – also known as drones.
At first blush, this may seem like a reasonable step. After all, drones are fast becoming an increasingly commonplace and familiar phenomenon, both in the public and private sectors. Drones have numerous potential uses – many of them extremely beneficial – and it makes sense that state government would try to keep some sort of up-to-date framework for their use.
The problem that arises is that there are many potentially negative uses of drones as well — especially when it comes to government, which is bound by the Constitution to respect the privacy of citizens.
Simply put, it makes sense for government officials to make use of drones in an open and transparent fashion – whether it’s to help farmers, spot forest fires, find missing hikers or many other easy-to-envision uses. It’s a big problem, however, if drones are used in a clandestine way and without public oversight.
And, unfortunately, based on the closed and secretive processes that have thus far been the hallmark of drone legislation and regulatory actions in North Carolina, there is reason to be very concerned. Last year, for instance, state lawmakers slipped a special provision into the state budget at the last minute without any debate that allows warrantless police drone searches in a host of venues.
Now, in recent weeks and well after what was supposed to be adjournment deadline for the 2015 session, lawmakers are at it again. The subject is Senate Bill 446 – a proposal that originally dealt only with the completely unrelated subject of car dealer loaner vehicles. In the House of Representatives, the bill was amended to add a number of provisions relating to government use of drones in North Carolina. Principally, it amends the State Chief Information Officer’s (CIO) authority to approve exceptions to the 2013 moratorium on government drone use.
First off, it should be noted that the CIO is a strange place to vest this authority. The CIO is simply a bureaucratic position filled by the Governor that is charged with helping to modernize state government’s use of technology. There is no judicial or even quasi-judicial power attached to the job and the person currently in it, Chris Estes, is a career corporate executive who spent many years working for a giant defense contractor.
Thus far, the only apparent entity to whom Estes has granted exceptions from the government moratorium on drone use has been the Next Gen Air Transportation group (NGAT), a nonprofit affiliated with N.C. State that is has been conducting tests on drones at a number of sites around North Carolina.
To date, all of the reporting on those tests in the public media has been about the agricultural and other non-controversial uses of drones. However, there is one site where NGAT tests drones that the public has a right to know about, but currently has not been informed: the home of the controversial private military contractor formerly known as Blackwater (now known as Academi) outside Moyock, NC in Currituck County.
According to public presentations available on the General Assembly’s website (www.ncleg.net), like this one by Mr. Estes himself, tests are occurring at the Academi/Blackwater site. And this presentation by the NGAT Director, Kyle Snyder just a few months ago, show that the drones being tested there are exclusively military surveillance in origin.
When state House members discussed an earlier version of Senate Bill 446 earlier this year in a Judiciary committee, the sponsor, Rep. John Torbett (himself a former drone industry executive) was asked to talk about the waiver granted for testing at Blackwater (referred to in the documents as “Moyock”) he declared that “There has been no waiver for Moyock.” (You can listen to audio by clicking here.) This flies in the face, however, of all the documentation stating that there is a state-approved testing occurring at the Academi/Blackwater site.
The bottom line question: Why the shroud of secrecy? If state government is conducting drone testing at the site of a mysterious military contractor with a troubled past, North Carolinians have a right to know why and what the purpose is.
Perhaps there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, but given the potential for using drones to spy on innocent Americans, and the record of government abuse of that potential over recent years, it’s simply unacceptable that state lawmakers are rushing through new legislation to further cement and expand the use of these potentially powerful surveillance devices without providing it.
Senate Bill 446 is scheduled for a final vote in the Senate today. Let’s hope Senators take a long and close look at the proposal. If it is approved, however, Governor McCrory should veto the bill or, at a minimum, provide North Carolinians with a full accounting on the state’s involvement in this subject before signing it into law.
Barry Summers is a citizen journalist and activist who lives in Asheville.