NJ Legislators Want To Ban Drone Photography Of 'Critical Infrastructure'

from the your-rights-end-where-our-freaking-out-begins dept

Government paranoia about “critical infrastructure” will now be extended to drone photography, if New Jersey’s proposed legislation is any indication. While law enforcement agencies are still weighing the Fourth Amendment implications of surveillance drones, some local governments are moving ahead with plans to shortchange the First Amendment.

This new legislation makes it a criminal offense to use a drone to take a photograph of “critical infrastructure.” And what is “critical infrastructure”? Any “asset” whose incapacity—even partial incapacity—would have an impact on the physical or economic security, or public health or safety, of the state. This specifically includes highways, waste treatment facilities, bridges, tunnels, and more.

This proposal would codify something many public employees (especially those in law enforcement/security agencies) already mistakenly believe: that photography of public structures is illegal and probably has something to do with terrorism. Even if the structure is already completely viewable with the naked eye, can be viewed via satellite photography and has been the subject of multiple official photo releases, people with cameras around certain structures are considered inherently suspicious. Now, this misguided “security” concern is being extended to eyes in the sky, something the government seems to believe should be in the possession of government agencies only.

The proposed penalties for violations are fairly severe.

Specifically, this bill makes it a fourth degree crime for a person to use a civilian unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly referred to as a drone, to conduct surveillance of, gather evidence or collect information or data about, or photographically or electronically record any critical infrastructure without the prior written consent of the entity that owns or operates the critical infrastructure. A fourth degree crime is punishable by up to 18 months imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

On top of that, the legislation would help the state build a list of “usual suspects.”

The bill also prohibits a person from operating a civilian drone unless it is registered with the Division of Aeronautics in the Department of Transportation. In addition, a person is prohibited from operating a civilian drone unless the person maintains liability insurance coverage to insure against loss resulting from liability for bodily injury, death, and property damage sustained by any person arising out of the ownership, maintenance, operation, or use of the drone. The required minimum coverage is to be in an amount determined by the Commissioner of Banking and Insurance in consultation with the Commissioner of Transportation.

A person who operates a civilian drone without the required registration or insurance is subject to a civil penalty of not less than $1,000 for a first offense and not less than $5,000 for a second or subsequent offense. In addition, for a second or subsequent offense, a person’s civilian drone registration is to be revoked for a period of two years.

So, while law enforcement agencies argue that aerial surveillance has minimal Fourth Amendment impact because public places have a lowered expectation of privacy, they’re also supporting legislation that would grant public structures more protection than a member of the public’s fenced-in backyard. Of course, the Fourth Amendment only deals with privacy. This legislative push concerns security — something that tends to receive higher priority than Constitutional rights.

Then there’s the inherent stupidity of carving out a drone-specific ban. People with regular cameras (or cell phones) will still be able to photograph these structures, as will aerial photographers in planes and helicopters. It’s a very specific paranoia — one limited solely to new tech that’s currently subject to very little government control.

And that’s really what this is all about. Lawmakers have (civilian) drone fever and the only cure is more cowbell legislation. Those pesky men (and women) and their flying machines are harming the nation’s security somehow with their democratization of aerial photography. These legislators obviously feel the only entity that should have full access to the skies and everything below is the government. And if the First Amendment has to suffer some cutbacks, so be it.

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Comments on “NJ Legislators Want To Ban Drone Photography Of 'Critical Infrastructure'”

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mcinsand (profile) says:

glad I abandoned hobby photography!

Back in the days of film, I used to take a lot of pictures. On weekends, I’d load a bunch of rolls with Tri-X, wander around town, and take pictures of whatever. More often than not, it was a particular view of a building, bridge, structure, whatever.

Times have certainly changed.

Now, I’m very careful to take any pictures of my kids with only non-structural things in the background. Trees are nice, woods are nice, and small streams are okay. Buildings, storage facilities, and bridges are not, however. No matter how much I think a background might be visually interesting, I really don’t want to get snagged by our Fourth-Amendment-free apparatus.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: glad I abandoned hobby photography!

My reaction is just the opposite: The contrarian in me is now tempted to take photos of buildings/bridges/etc. where previously I had no interest in it.

One thing’s for certain: I’m not going to worry about whether or not such structures are in my photos. I’m going to keep taking pictures just as I always have.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have been having an unpleasant feeling for a long time regarding the use of security to reduce the constitutional protections we were once proud of having. Just recently I have finished a book called the Dictator’s Handbook and by golly nearly every story i see here reinforces many of the points brought up in the book Primarily that being those in power fear losing the power by dilution, something the internet is a powerful tool. Now unlike the internet, which those in power failed to realize the diluting affect (effect?) that the internet would have on said power, are working to regain any lost power and to fortify themselves and the system against any further loss in said power. Of course this is a gross simplification of the situation and probably isn’t entirely a conscious act on many of those involved with stupid actions such as outlawing taking a picture of a bridge with a drone, many of those people might be legitimately concerned with safety and think this is a good idea.

Anonymous Coward says:

The licensing and insuring registrations are wonderfully (awfully) vague.
It seems to basically read that people are required to file paperwork that does not yet exist and obtain insurance that few to no providers even know how to offer, with fees, credits, points and other costs to be decided at some random point in the future by parties that will profit the most from it.

And wouldn’t ‘photographically record’ include long distance skyline shots from miles around the state? I am sure any road, bridge, water tower, drainage canal or building that houses a government office or important utility node could be ‘critical infrastructure’

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

any bathroom, toilet, or any crap-processing device also fits this definition of “critical infrastructure”

Any “asset” whose incapacity—even partial incapacity—would have an impact on the physical or economic security, or public health or safety, of the state.

$DEITY forbid that you happen to take a picture of a toilet bowl that’s displayed for sale at the local market.
That crapper is a critical bit of infrastructure!

If that toilet bowl is cracked or has fissures and is a danger to whomever would happen to sit on said crapper, if you happen to take a photo of it then it would be a matter of intentionally exposing vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure.

If you dare to file any complaint to consumer-protection agencies or make any use of the pictures of the cracked crapper you’ll end up locked for life without parole for using and exploiting vulnerable bits of critical infrastructure.

All because of a toilet bowl.
/sarcasm (or sad truth)

James G. Witte (profile) says:


Because it should be illegal for a news agency to program a drone to fly over the highway and stream live coverage of the traffic conditions–to the cloud–WITHOUT having a pilot actively flying the helicopter. If you take away the pilot’s job, how will he feed his family?(and pay income taxes)

Even if that means that the news agency can now do the same public service for less money, we have to think of the economy!

Anonymous Coward says:

Welcome, comrades, to the United States of Amerika!

I cannot even fathom how those in power do not see the destructiveness of their actions. Their actions are far more destructive to this country than any bridge, building or facility. You take out a bridge, you inconvenience hundreds, thousands, maybe a million people. You take away our rights and freedoms and you affect almost 400 million people.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: I agree with the insurance requirement

… earlier this week they had a drone disrupt firefighting capabilities …

Which sounds suspiciously like way over-reacting to me. All they had to do was fly past it close enough (not very close!) and the backwash would pretty much pulverize the thing.

I think politicos should instead be forcing said critical infrastructure to be disconnected (air-gapped) from the net. Who wants to go to the trouble of driving a truck bomb into the WTC’s basement garage when you can just telnet into its controllers (login: Siemens, password: Stuxnet) and make it fall over remotely?

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