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The FAA's proposed rule requires drone operators fly their aircraft below 500 feet. (Photo: Budi Nusyirwan/flickr/cc)

Surveillance, Privacy Concerns Raised as FAA Gives Domestic Drones a Nod

FAA and White House release rules and memo governing commercial drone use on same day

Deirdre Fulton

Domestic non-military drone use took one step closer to widespread implementation on Sunday, as the Federal Aviation Administration issued proposed regulations for small unmanned aircraft systems in the U.S.

According to an FAA press release, the rule would limit flights to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations. It also addresses height restrictions, operator certification, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits. In a blow to Google and Amazon, it does not permit drone delivery.

"The potential for drones to violate individual rights supports the need for legislation and regulations for government uses of drones as well as commercial vehicles."
Drew Mitnick & Jack Bussell, Access

Also on Sunday, the White House issued an Executive Order requiring every federal agency to develop "a framework regarding privacy, accountability, and transparency for commercial and private [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] use" within 90 days and with an eye toward protecting personal privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. 

"Together, the FAA regulations and the White House order provide some basic rules of the sky that will govern who can fly drones in the United States and under what conditions, while attempting to prevent aviation disasters and unrestrained government surveillance," the Washington Post declared.

But civil liberties experts warned that the FAA rules and presidential memo leave the door open for invasions of privacy by the government and corporations.

"The proposed rules do absolutely nothing to address privacy, except perhaps require some identifying markings displayed in the 'largest practicable manner' such that you may be able to identify who owns the drone that is spying on you," Ryan Calo wrote at Forbes. "I was on the conference call announcing the new rules and the Secretary of Transportation mentioned the importance of privacy and civil liberties, but this commitment is not reflected in the proposed rules."

The Center for Democracy and Technology called on Congress to raise the bar on domestic drone standards.

"Drones have the potential for significant societal, scientific, and economic benefits, but also pose new and intrusive privacy problems," CDT senior counsel Harley Geiger said in a press statement. "The White House’s memo requires government agencies to enhance transparency and develop clear rules to protect the privacy of Americans. This is an important and welcome step in advancing drone technology, while protecting civil liberties."

Still, he added, "the White House memo itself does not establish strong privacy and transparency drone standards for agencies, leaving it up to the agencies to develop these standards. Because the memo’s requirements are not specific, the drone policies the agencies set for themselves will be key to how individuals’ privacy is actually protected. Congress still has a role to play in setting strong privacy and transparency standards for drone use."

One of the most promising applications for domestic drone use is also one of the most troubling: as an internet service platform, giving operators access to vast quantities of data and threatening net neutrality, Drew Mitnick and Jack Bussell note at the blog for Access, a global human rights organization focused on digital freedom.

"Drones also increase the opportunities for governments to conduct first-hand surveillance of users’ electronic communications by intercepting signals and information," they write. "Official documents demonstrate that government agencies are already exploring aerial platforms for surveillance technologies, like Stingray technology, which conducts bulk surveillance of user location information... The potential for drones to violate individual rights supports the need for legislation and regulations for government uses of drones as well as commercial vehicles."

Mitnick and Bussell continue:

Drones provide great capacity to benefit both users and industry. However, drone technology is still new, and it will likely be utilized in ways we cannot imagine today. Access hopes that the process initiated by the Obama Administration will provide clear, lasting rules for drone use, particularly for use as an internet service platform, both in a pseudo-permanent and temporary capacity, and the rules that these providers must abide by, including issues of network neutrality. By addressing hard questions now, we can provide for a path forward that allows for innovation without sacrificing user rights.

According to the Post, "the FAA and the White House had intended to unveil their new drone rules later this month. But an official document highlighting some of the proposed regulations was inadvertently posted on a federal Web site Friday night, prompting the Obama administration to announce the changes in the middle of a holiday weekend."


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