FAA Balks at Privacy Rules for Drones

A NASA Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone aircraft, takes off during a Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel, or HS3, mission at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, on September 10, 2013. The HS3 mission uses two of the unmanned aircraft to fly over tropical storms and hurricanes to monitor weather conditions, utlilizing the Global Hawk's ability to fly as high as 19.8 km (12.3 miles), as far as 20,278 km (12,600 miles) and stay in the air for as long as 28 hours.
National Journal
Nov. 7, 2013, 12:08 p.m.

The Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion made clear Thursday that ad­di­tion­al pri­vacy meas­ures are not ne­ces­sary for the emer­ging ci­vil­ian drone in­dustry, a blow to gov­ern­ment-sur­veil­lance watch­dogs clam­or­ing for reg­u­la­tion of drone users.

Speak­ing be­fore the Aerospace In­dus­tries As­so­ci­ation, FAA chief Mi­chael Huerta un­veiled a five-year road map plot­ting a path for­ward for the in­teg­ra­tion of com­mer­cial drones in­to na­tion­al air­space. The FAA ex­pects there to be 7,500 un­manned air­craft dart­ing across the skies with­in the next five years. By 2025, that num­ber could soar to more than 30,000.

“Make no mis­take about it, pri­vacy is an ex­tremely im­port­ant is­sue, and it’s something that the pub­lic has a sig­ni­fic­ant in­terest and con­cern over,” Huerta said. “We need to re­cog­nize as an in­dustry if we’re go­ing to take full ad­vant­age of the be­ne­fits of these tech­no­lo­gies, we need to be re­spons­ive to the pub­lic’s con­cerns about pri­vacy.”

Huerta said that the FAA is work­ing with sev­er­al fed­er­al agen­cies, in­clud­ing the de­part­ments of Home­land Se­cur­ity and Justice, to de­vel­op ap­pro­pri­ate pri­vacy safe­guards. But his com­ments — and the new re­port — are largely curs­ory.

The road map only touches on pri­vacy and civil-liberty con­cerns in gen­er­al terms, stat­ing that six still-un­an­nounced test sites must es­tab­lish a pri­vacy policy that is pub­lic and “in­formed” by the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion’s Fair In­form­a­tion Prac­tice Prin­ciples. But the FAA makes clear that “the test sites are not in­ten­ded to pre­de­ter­mine the long-term policy and reg­u­lat­ory frame­work” for drone pri­vacy.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who is spon­sor­ing drone-pri­vacy le­gis­la­tion in the House, said the re­port shows the FAA is “def­in­itely” not do­ing enough to provide safe­guards on po­ten­tial drone use or li­cens­ing.

“It’s largely that they don’t see that it’s un­der their au­thor­ity or jur­is­dic­tion,” Welch said, adding: “Hav­ing an ar­gu­ment about wheth­er it’s plat­form-neut­ral sort of evades the real­ity that this has a massive ca­pa­city to in­trude on pri­vacy rights of all Amer­ic­ans.”

Welch said he in­tends to so­li­cit back­ing from oth­er mem­bers in the com­ing week. Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key, D-Mass., also in­tro­duced a Sen­ate ver­sion of the bill this week. “A patch­work of plans without a fed­er­al law is simply not enough to en­sure the strongest safe­guards are in place,” Mar­key said in a state­ment.

But com­mer­cial-drone lob­by­ists cham­pioned the re­port’s pri­vacy policy for seek­ing to work with­in ex­ist­ing state and fed­er­al laws. Co­di­fy­ing drone-spe­cif­ic re­stric­tions, they say, would be an un­fair hit to an in­dustry that could gen­er­ate 100,000 jobs.

“In re­quir­ing (un­manned air­craft sys­tems) test sites to have a writ­ten plan for data use and re­ten­tion, the FAA also ap­pro­pri­ately fo­cuses on the real is­sue when it comes to pri­vacy — the use, stor­age, and shar­ing of data, or wheth­er data col­lec­ted must be de­leted,” Mi­chael To­scano, pres­id­ent and CEO of the As­so­ci­ation for Un­manned Vehicle Sys­tems In­ter­na­tion­al, said in a state­ment. “This dove­tails with AUVSI’s po­s­i­tion that any pri­vacy laws must be plat­form-neut­ral, treat­ing manned and un­manned plat­forms the same.”

Huerta did not an­nounce where the FAA will set up its six test sites, but said the agency had re­ceived 25 pro­pos­als rep­res­ent­ing 26 states and still ex­pects to award the con­tracts by the end of the year. But the FAA has re­peatedly missed con­gres­sion­ally man­dated dead­lines guid­ing the in­teg­ra­tion of drones in­to com­mer­cial air­space, and skep­ti­cism re­mains as to wheth­er those sites will be chosen with­in the next two months.

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