California can't wait another year to regulate the use of drones. Not with National Security Agency Director Keith "Collect it All" Alexander as the federal government's role model for how surveillance technology should be used.
Many Silicon Valley geeks treasure the Wild West atmosphere that technological advances perpetuate. Drones certainly carry the potential for valuable applications by private industry and law enforcement agencies, including crop management and search and rescue missions.
But there is a huge potential for abuse. The valley needs to be proactive in helping write laws to prevent unwarranted intrusions into our privacy. After all, in the real Wild West, folks wouldn't have put up with somebody spying on them all the time.
The Legislature is considering two drone technology laws. One, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, SB 15, is garbage. The second, by Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, AB 1327, should be passed and sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.
Unfortunately, Padilla is a Democrat running for secretary of state, while Gorell is a Republican in a Democrat-dominated Legislature. It will take political courage for Democrats to stand up for Californians, not their party, and accept the Gorell bill -- and that's where Silicon Valley leaders could help.
Padilla's bill creates the illusion that Californians will be protected from "surreptitious surveillance activities." But a crucial section says police only need to get a warrant for use of a drone when there is a "reasonable expectation" of privacy. In other words, the law says, trust law enforcement to decide when it's necessary to get a warrant before spying.
Given what we've seen from the NSA, no wonder privacy advocates are up in arms. The standard of reasonable expectation is ridiculously vague. It's meaningless. Padilla should know better.
Gorell's bill has none of those shortcomings. AB 1327 makes it illegal to use drones to spy on Californians without a warrant. It requires police to get a warrant unless specific exceptions apply, such as an emergency situation in which police or public safety is in danger. It also makes it illegal to outfit a drone with a weapon or to use a drone as a weapon.
The Obama administration has ordered the FAA to write comprehensive rules by September 2015 for integrating drones into national air space. The drone industry is expected to grow by 700 percent by 2020, meaning that an estimated 10,000 drones will be in the air if the FAA authorizes their use.
Padilla's bill will have a hearing soon before the Assembly Public Safety Committee. The committee should kill it so that Gorell's AB 1237, whose next hearing is in the Senate Appropriations Committee, can be passed and signed into law. We'll see whether politics or Californians' right to privacy wins out.
©2014 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)