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Drone Privacy Bill Would Put In Safeguards On Surveillance

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A model of an unmanned flying vehicle (UAV) protesting the use of drones is seen on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House on June 23, 2012.
A model of an unmanned flying vehicle (UAV) protesting the use of drones is seen on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House on June 23, 2012.

WASHINGTON -- Police would be required to get a warrant to use drones for certain types of surveillance under legislation introduced on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. The proposed bill would also tighten regulations on what kind of data can be collected by the government and private companies and how it can be used.

The proposed legislation is the latest measure introduced by lawmakers in both parties who are concerned about the coming proliferation of drones and who want more transparency about the government's use of such devices. The drones, until now mostly limited to military use overseas, will bring airborne video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar and wireless network sniffers to American skies. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has estimated that as many as 30,000 drones could be in use domestically by 2020, spurred on by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) among other government agencies.

To safeguard against abuses, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus and a longtime member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, released a draft of the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2012 on Wednesday. It is the first drone privacy bill from a Democrat and follows legislation introduced recently by Republicans, including Rep. Ted Poe of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

“When it comes to privacy protections for the American people, drones are flying blind,” said Markey in a statement. “Drones are already flying in U.S. airspace – with thousands more to come – but with no privacy protections or transparency measures in place. We are entering a brave new world, and just because a company soon will be able to register a drone license shouldn’t mean that company can turn it into a cash register by selling consumer information. Currently, there are no privacy protections or guidelines and no way for the public to know who is flying drones, where, and why. The time to implement privacy protections is now."

President Obama signed an FAA bill in February that gives the go-ahead to draw up rules to integrate drones into the country's airspace by October 2015. Markey's legislation would amend the FAA Modernization and Reform Act by adding several provisions that would:

  • Require the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with the Commerce Department, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and DHS to study and report back to Congress on the privacy impacts of drone use.
  • Mandate the FAA include privacy considerations in its rule making process for drone licenses, using FTC guidelines as the standard.
  • Forbid the FAA from issuing drone licenses unless the application includes detailed information that "explains exactly what kind of data will be collected, how that data will be used, and how the licensee will protect privacy."
  • Require law enforcement agencies and their contractors and subcontractors to state "how they will minimize the collection and retention of data unrelated to the investigation of a crime."
  • Mandate the FAA create a publicly available website that lists all approved drone licenses, any date security breaches by the drone operator and the the times and locations of drone flights.

According to the 17-page "discussion draft," the bill would allow exceptions to the law in cases involving national security or when an individual is in "immediate and severe danger."

Civil liberties groups concerned about potential abuses have lobbied and testified before lawmakers urging tougher privacy safeguards.

“We don't want to live in country with ‘eyes in the sky’,” said Amie Stepanovich, Associate Litigation Counsel, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “EPIC has petitioned the FAA to develop privacy safeguards and we have urged Congress to crack down on surveillance by drones. Congressman Markey has introduced important legislation that will help protect a fundamental American right.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has filed lawsuits to release federal drone records, welcomed Markey's bill.

“Drone surveillance, whether by private or public entities or by law enforcement, poses a real threat to democratic societies, and this bill is a step in the right direction toward limiting that threat," EFF staff attorney Jennifer Lynch said in a statement.

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