Demonstrators walk through on the West Washington Blvd during a “March for Our Lives” rally in support of gun control, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Chicago.
Photo: AP

An Illinois bill permitting police surveillance drones at protests is igniting a fiery debate in Chicago.

Introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the bill amends the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act to permit police to fly surveillance drones over “large scale events” in Chicago. Though the bill itself references festivals and concerts, ACLU Illinois says the amendment would empower police to fly drones over political protests and rallies as well. The ACLU asked lawmakers to include language barring drones from protests, but they declined, despite telling the Chicago Sun that the city had “incorporated [the ACLU’s] input” into the new bill.

“It is not accurate,” Karen Sheley, director of the ACLU Police Practices Project, tells Gizmodo. “We were willing to have conversations about the use of drones when there was information about a particular criminal target... but we think it’s entirely problematic to put drones over people who are trying to express themselves on the streets of Chicago.”

The bill passed its second reading in the House last week and will advance for its third, and final, reading.

The ACLU’s position, Sheley explains, was for the amendment to block police surveillance drones from First Amendment protected activities, including protests, rallies, walk-outs, etc. Crucially, the bill does not require police to obtain warrants or suspect criminal activity before launching drones to surveil public events, opening the door for aerial police presence at potentially any protest or rally.

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“This is a very active time,” Sheley tells Gizmodo “when people are engaged in First Amendment activity. We have people who are out there now who are trying to fight back against policies of the Trump administration, who are protesting about police uses of force against people of color in Chicago protesting about guns.”

The mayor’s office objected to several crucial additions suggested by the ACLU: banning face recognition and banning weaponized drones.

Under Illinois’ landmark Biometric Information Privacy Act, big tech corporations like Google and Facebook must obtain consent before they collect fingerprints or photos of faces for face-recognition uses. But, as Sheley notes, this regulation is limited only to “private entities,” opening up the possibility for police in Chicago to deploy surveillance drones with face recognition.

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“The way it stands under this bill, if it’s passed, there’s a cheap tool to monitor First Amendment activity,” Sheley says “and to collect information about who’s in the crowd and make lists of the people [attending].”

The amendment includes no language barring drones from biometric data collection, nor does it include guidelines on how long such data is stored or who it’s shared with. Most troublingly, Sheley says the amendment opens a loophole that weakens the restrictions on drones equipped with weapons like tear gas or rubber bullets.

“Paragraph 7 is limiting the ban on weapons only to when they’re over large scale event,” she says. “So now there’s an explicit acknowledgment of the weapons. If you go [read] through the rest of the paragraphs, none of them ban it. So now when you read it, it reads as if it’s allowed for these other situations.”

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It may seem like a quirk of the language, but nonetheless, the city did not move to add clarifying language explicitly banning weaponized drones. Police departments denied that they plan on using armed drones, according to the ACLU, though Sheley still disagrees with the language. The bill is advancing for further review and if it passes, will be sent to the governor to sign into law.