Senator Pushes for Protection From Drones’ Prying Eyes

A NASA Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone aircraft, is stored inside an airplane hangar 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
Add to Briefcase
Dustin Volz
Nov. 5, 2013, 4:45 p.m.

As the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion as­sesses wheth­er com­mer­cial skies are ready for com­mer­cial, non­mil­it­ary drones in the near fu­ture, some law­makers are at­tempt­ing to cap­it­al­ize on the data-sur­veil­lance de­bate by push­ing for pree­mpt­ive pri­vacy reg­u­la­tions on the still-groun­ded in­dustry.

Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key, D-Mass., in­tro­duced a bill this week that would re­quire law-en­force­ment agen­cies to earn a war­rant be­fore con­duct­ing any sur­veil­lance via any un­manned air­craft. The bill would also make drone ap­plic­a­tions in­clude state­ments de­tail­ing the pur­pose and loc­a­tion of any drone and how any data col­lec­ted is in­ten­ded to be used; it would also re­quire the FAA to main­tain a web­site list­ing li­censes is­sued and oth­er in­form­a­tion about ap­proved drones.

“Be­fore count­less com­mer­cial drones be­gin to fly over­head, we must ground their op­er­a­tion in strong rules to pro­tect pri­vacy and pro­mote trans­par­ency,” Mar­key said in a state­ment. “This le­gis­la­tion re­quires trans­par­ency on the do­mest­ic use of drones and adds pri­vacy pro­tec­tions that en­sure this tech­no­logy can­not and will not be used to spy on Amer­ic­ans.”

Drone lob­by­ists con­tend that a bill such as Mar­key’s is un­fairly “singling out” drones and would cre­ate an un­even leg­al stand­ard for data col­lec­ted from un­manned air­craft, a tech­no­logy that by some es­tim­ates could be­come a $90 bil­lion in­dustry and cre­ate up to 100,000 jobs.

“If pri­vacy is go­ing to be ad­dressed in Con­gress, it needs to be done in a tech­no­logy-neut­ral way,” said Ben Gielow, gov­ern­ment-re­la­tions man­ager with the As­so­ci­ation for Un­manned Vehicle Sys­tems In­ter­na­tion­al, which op­poses Mar­key’s bill. “Who cares if the pi­lot is on the ground versus in the ac­tu­al air­craft?”

Gielow and oth­ers say they don’t op­pose pri­vacy and trans­par­ency re­quire­ments on sur­veil­lance writ large; but re­form needs to hap­pen more evenly, they say, and gov­ern­ment agen­cies, not the private sec­tor, should bear the brunt of such trans­par­ency and pri­vacy safe­guards.

But the on­go­ing fal­lout from the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s sweep­ing sur­veil­lance pro­grams and the lack of trans­par­ency of its bulk-data col­lec­tion show the dangers of not ad­dress­ing pri­vacy con­cerns be­fore they be­come co­di­fied, ab­us­ive, and more dif­fi­cult to rein in, said Jeram­ie Scott, a law­yer with the Elec­tron­ic Pri­vacy In­form­a­tion Cen­ter.

The NSA scan­dal is “go­ing to make the pub­lic as well as the drone in­dustry more sens­it­ive to the pri­vacy top­ic,” Scott said. “It’s a clear ex­ample what can hap­pen when the is­sues of pri­vacy are not dealt with in an up-front and trans­par­ent man­ner.”

Last year, Con­gress in­struc­ted the FAA to de­term­ine wheth­er it could make it safe for un­manned drones to fly by 2015. Tens of thou­sands of drones are ex­pec­ted to take to the skies in dec­ades to fol­low; the pos­sib­il­it­ies for how they might be used are nearly as lim­it­less as their po­ten­tial quant­ity, and they cut across vir­tu­ally all in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing farm­ing, sci­ence re­search, and crim­in­al justice.

Mar­key in­tro­duced vir­tu­ally the same le­gis­la­tion earli­er this year when he was still in the House. That bill has since been picked up by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

Al­though it has pre­vi­ously missed re­port dead­lines on the sub­ject, the FAA could is­sue an up­date later this week that in­cludes a pro­gress re­port on its test­ing at six sites around the coun­try of how drones could af­fect com­mer­cial air­line ser­vice.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.