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Establishing drone guidelines an important privacy measure
The Federal Aviation Administration is in the midst of a public rule making for drones. This is an important process that will help ensure that drones are safely deployed in civilian airspace in the United States.
Among the regulations that the FAA is considering are requirements that commercial drone operators obtain a license, that drones only be operated during daytime, and that operators maintain visual line of sight with their craft.
That is a good start but more needs to be done. The FAA should also establish rules to ensure that drones do not engage in unlawful surveillance.
As President Barack Obama has explained, the federal government should "take steps to ensure that the integration takes into account not only our economic competiveness and public safety, but also the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties concerns these systems may raise."
This is a real concern as virtually all drones will carry high-resolution cameras with the ability to record images of people and also of private property. The FAA needs to ensure that commercial drones are not used for stalking, harassment or to pry into people's private lives.
The FAA has acknowledged that its responsibility includes coordinating its efforts with "privacy policies so that the integration of drones into the national airspace is done in a manner that supports and maintains the U.S. government's ability to secure the airspace and addresses privacy concerns."
With special capabilities and enhanced equipment, drones are able to conduct detailed surveillance, obtaining high-resolution pictures and videos, peering inside high-level windows and through solid barriers, such as fences, trees, and even walls.
Drones pose unique threats to privacy by virtue of their design, their size, how high they can fly, and their ability to operate undetected in urban and rural environments. Many people will have no idea that they are subject to surveillance by small, unmanned vehicle.
In addition, drones can track multiple targets across a distance of hundreds of miles and gather sensitive, personal information using infrared cameras, heat sensors, GPS, automated license-plate readers and other sensors.
Of course, there is no dispute that drones can play an important role in rescue operations. They may also be useful for news gathering. But these beneficial uses should not obscure the very real risks to privacy created by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles loaded with surveillance technology.
Freedom of Information Act cases pursued by the Electronic Privacy Information Center reveal that drones may also have the ability to intercept electronic communications and to engage in facial recognition.
For these reasons, more than 100 experts and civil-liberties organizations petitioned the FAA to develop privacy rules for drones. The FAA denied the petition even after Congress told the federal agency to develop a "comprehensive plan" for the deployment of drones in civil airspace.
So, EPIC has sued the agency to help ensure that appropriate privacy rules are established. We do not believe that a voluntary, "best practices" approach is the right way to establish meaningful privacy safeguards. If the FAA has the authority to establish legal rules for drone safety, it also has the authority to establish legal rules to limit drone surveillance.
In response to growing public questions, many states are already enacting laws to limit drone activities. Most recently, Florida passed a law prohibiting the use of drones to intentionally record images of people on private property if a reasonable expectation of privacy exists. The law applies to law enforcement and private individuals, and provides civil damages and injunctive relief.
These efforts should be encouraged, and before commercial drones are deployed in the United States, federal baseline rules to limit their surveillance capabilities should be established.
— Marc Rotenberg is president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington and editor of "Privacy in the Modern Age: The Search for Solutions." He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.