If law enforcement agencies had a free hand, we might all soon be living in a version of what Sting sang: "Every step you take, I'll be watching you." The advance of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, has made suffocating surveillance not only possible but affordable.
In the past, cops could keep tabs on someone 24/7 only if they could assign officers to that single duty round the clock. But today, a drone could do the job for a fraction of the cost.
That option has great potential for fighting crime, but it also threatens to leave us all vulnerable to unblinking scrutiny -- or at least the threat of it. So it's important for lawmakers to confront the choices before these devices come into common use by law enforcement agencies.
Fortunately, both houses of the Illinois General Assembly have approved legislation to require police to obtain search warrants before using drones to conduct surveillance. If they have grounds to think someone is going to commit a crime, they'll have no trouble getting permission from a judge. If not, they'll have to use old-fashioned methods that are less intrusive. Exceptions would be made for emergencies like a terrorist attack or a prisoner escape. The legislation conforms to what was proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Gov. Quinn has not taken a position yet.
Rules like these are essential to preserving a sphere of privacy in our daily lives while making good use of a valuable tool for enhancing public safety. It's possible to do both, and if this bill becomes law, Illinois will be showing the way.
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