Law enforcement agencies would need a warrant to use aerial drones to gather information in investigations, under a bill the Illinois Senate overwhelmingly backed Thursday.
The unmanned aircraft, which have become a staple of the U.S. military's arsenal over the past decade, are being viewed as a useful new crime-fighting tool by domestic law enforcement agencies, raising civil liberties concerns.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Biss, would require authorities to obtain a search warrant before using a drone to collect information. Lawmakers voted 52-1 to send the measure to the House. Biss, an Evanston Democrat, said his proposal will help maintain people's reasonable expectation of privacy.
The legislative measure also prohibits law enforcement agencies from using armed drones.
The Champaign County sheriff has already experimented with using a drone and the Cook County sheriff has expressed enthusiasm about the technology. But civil rights groups and lawmakers worry that the technology could be used to subject people to unwarranted intrusion.
"It's all about this new technology that if it's not restricted in some way, enables government and law enforcement to have a completely unprecedented level of knowledge of what people do, where they go, and frankly therefore, what they think," Biss said following the debate.
Drones are already flying in America's skies. But more widespread use is expected to begin in 2015 because of federal regulations.
Biss' measure lists a few instances in which law enforcement agencies wouldn't be required to obtain a search warrant, such as when the Department of Homeland Security determines that such surveillance is needed to prevent a terrorist attack.
Sen. Bill Cunningham cast the only no vote. The Chicago Democrat said he opposed the measure because he would like law enforcement agencies to be able to deploy drones without warrants, just as they use helicopters.
Biss said he is optimistic that the House will look "favorably" on his measure.