Texas’ drone laws compromise our whistleblowers, safety

Spencer Buckner

Texas’ new drone regulation is being marketed as a necessity for safety and privacy around the state — but don’t let that fool you. The recently passed law regarding drone flight will only make it harder for independent whistleblowers to check the actions of corporations working in Texas.

Targeting private drone flight over “critical infrastructure facilities” such as concentrated animal feeding operations and oil and gas wells, storage and pipelines, House Bill 1643 seems, if taken at face value, a rightful precaution in protecting vulnerable infrastructure. However, when looking at the history of these facilities, it becomes evident what the law is
really accomplishing.

The very nature of a farm lends itself to questionable health standards. Animals are often subject to painfully small enclosures, poor air filtration and nonexistent health monitoring — meaning animals slated for consumption are interspersed with animals that are dead or diseased. Ninety-five percent of Americans say they are concerned with the health of farm animals, an awareness that has led to changes in business practice and improvement in farm conditions. The vast majority, however, wouldn’t be aware of these abuses without whistleblowers. 

In 2011, footage from a civilian-piloted drone led to the shuttering of a slaughterhouse after exposing its dumping of pig blood in a river. It was perhaps the first instance of a drone capturing an endemic disregard for health at factory farms. This footage builds off of the work of activists capturing abuse on cellphone cameras. Undercover video has surfaced in recent years of farm laborers snapping the necks of live chickens and throwing newborn piglets for sport — making a grisly game of death and of the food we eat. 

The drone is emerging as a new weapon of the whistleblower. With information on bad corporate practices obscured behind closed doors and being so hard to obtain, undercover footage is often the only thread protecting Americans from questionably raised food.

So why would the Texas Legislature remove a new tool in the arsenal of whistleblowers? Agricultural lobbyists gave over $4 million in campaign funds to our legislators between 2013 and 2016. In fact, many of the “critical infrastructure facilities” that are protected under HB 1643 fall under areas represented by the state’s most prominent political campaign donors. It’s no surprise then why the Texas Legislature would be interested in banning drone flight over factory farms — companies would much rather choose to use their money to influence lawmakers than lose it in a whistleblower-sparked media firestorm.

Texas lawmakers must not prioritize the needs of corporate donors over civilian whistleblowing that keeps the public informed and communities safer. For a state government whose ideology is based around an inherent wariness of the powers of government, it is ironic that Texas lawmakers have made themselves into a case study of their own fears.

Buckner is a Plan II and government freshman from Austin.