Callers chime in on FAA drone privacy meeting

Today the FAA held a virtual town hall meeting about the proposed privacy policy for drone test sites. Callers ranged from those concerned about UAV surveillance to those who scoffed at privacy to those who were more concerned about safety when drones fill the sky overhead.

Today the FAA held a two-hour online session to solicit additional comments about the agency's proposed "Unmanned Aircraft System Test Site Program Privacy Policy" [pdf]. Callers were all over the place with their comments, some concerned about proposed test sites, but many were safety-related and did not seem to deal with privacy at all.

The FAA stated:

The FAA anticipates that test site operator privacy practices will help inform the dialogue among policymakers, privacy advocates, and the industry on broader questions about the use of UAS technologies. The privacy requirements the FAA has proposed are specifically designed for the operation of the UAS test sites. They are not intended to pre-determine the long-term policy and regulatory framework under which commercial UASs would operate. Rather, they aim to assure maximum transparency of privacy policies associated with UAS test site operations in order to engage all stakeholders in discussion about which privacy issues are raised by UAS operations and how law, public policy, and the industry practices should respond to those issues in the long run.

I apologize to any callers who will be mentioned, since I only got a few names and then decided to use no names, but cover some of the comments.

Many callers suggested that the FAA had no business veering away from safety to deal with privacy issues. Some callers said that is what the FCC, Congress, legislation and local government should be doing. For example, Charlottesville, VA, and Seattle have come up with their own drone solutions; lawmakers in 11 other states are also considering legislation to limit or ban the use of drones. Another caller said that "Congress punted" it back to the FAA. But some callers suggested that any privacy policy for UAVs should be addressed by the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security. Another caller asked, if that were the case, how much of it would be classified or only be revealed in the long, slow process of FOIA requests?

The Rutherford Institute pointed out that no one will be safe from the all-seeing eyes of drones and that UAVs such as those with facial recognition capabilities will be recording the daily activities of Americans. The caller asked for the FAA to go on record as supporting that any data collected could not be allowed for use in a court of law, and that drones should not be allowed to be equipped with lethal or nonlethal weapons, such as tasers, tear gas or machine guns.

CDT called in to say we should be allowed to see data collection statements and the data collected. Voluntary and unenforceable UAV guidelines are not enough; there needs to be operator accountability. The privacy risks associated with drones are very real, EPIC added, and all drone operators should be required to be listed in a public database.

Several callers said the FAA did not have working links to the proposed privacy policy. Yet another caller said there was insufficient public coverage about the FAA's online session. Perhaps because the FAA and others are trying to get away from the word "drone" and instead use UAV or UAS, one caller said simply, "A drone is a drone and what you are doing is a sham."

A caller from the Defending Dissent Foundation was concerned with how civilian law enforcement will use these flying robots. He suggested that the FAA should not issue drone licenses until operators publish a data collection statement that answers these questions: Who would operate them and where? What data is collected and how will it be used? How long will the data be retained? Will it be sold to third parties? He added that LEA should also make such data retention statements public and should only be allowed to use drones with a warrant or in extreme exigent circumstances.

Conversely, another caller said we've had cameras on aircraft since the "dawn of flying." Someone else pointed out that there is a difference between cameras mounted on aircraft now and those technological surveillance capabilities coming with domestic drones; unlike with small UAVs, you'd be sure to notice a hovering helicopter or airplane circling around your home or above public spaces. Another man said people thought Google Earth, police car cams, and cameras at intersections would be an invasion of privacy, but now "everyone" is "comfortable" with that technology.

Other callers talked about how GPS could be hacked or jammed, and many, many callers were less concerned about privacy and more concerned about safety issues of UAVs flying overhead. Some were concerned about drones potentially crashing into schools, neighborhoods, buildings or other aircraft. One caller even mentioned the future of insect drones. Another mentioned DARPA's all-seeing ARGUS.

Universities had callers asking about ethical standards and constraints, with the University of Pennsylvania adding that researchers should be allowed to put on any payload within those restraints without needing to re-notify the FAA.

Several callers talked about the potential good that will come from UAVs, such as being a valuable tool in search and rescue, one much needed after Hurricane Katrina, or for environmental tracking after a disaster such as the BP oil spill, or when used for power line or oil pipe line inspection. One caller said we are only limited by our imagination in how drones can be used. In fact, another wanted drones to constantly monitor urban areas, so lights could be turned out or replaced with Wi-Fi light bulbs, which would cut energy bills by 30%. He added that the constitutionally protected right of self-defense should allow all Americans to launch drones.

Considering what all drones will potentially do, it was surprising that more comments were not specifically targeting privacy issues. I was struck by how many callers continued to say that the real UAV issue is with safety. Most of those callers added that the FAA has no place in determining privacy policy; that it should be left to the government and other agencies that constantly deal with Fourth Amendment protections.

In case you did not see the draft of proposed privacy requirements for UAS test sites, here they are:

(1) The Site Operator must ensure that there are privacy policies governing all activities conducted under the OTA, including the operation and relevant activities of the UASs authorized by the Site Operator. Such privacy policies must be available publically, and the Site Operator must have a mechanism to receive and consider comments on its privacy policies. In addition, these policies should be informed by Fair Information Practice Principles. The privacy policies should be updated as necessary to remain operationally current and effective. The Site Operator must ensure the requirements of this paragraph are applied to all operations conducted under the OTA.(2) The Site Operator and its team members are required to operate in accordance with Federal, state, and other laws regarding the protection of an individual's right to privacy. Should criminal or civil charges be filed by the U.S. Department of Justice or a state's law enforcement authority over a potential violation of such laws, the FAA may take appropriate action, including suspending or modifying the relevant operational authority (e.g., Certificate of Operation, or OTA), until the proceedings are completed. If the proceedings demonstrate the operation was in violation of the law, the FAA may terminate the relevant operational authority.(3) If over the lifetime of this Agreement, any legislation or regulation, which may have an impact on UAS or to the privacy interests of entities affected by any operation of any UAS operating at the Test Site, is enacted or otherwise effectuated, such legislation or regulation will be applicable to the OTA and the FAA may update or amend the OTA to reflect these changes.(4) Transmission of data from the Site Operator to the FAA or its designee must only include those data listed in Appendix B to the OTA. (Appendix B to the OTA is available as part of the SIR at

The calls with comments today continued for two hours, but it's not too late to add your voice. You can add comments on about proposed test sites as well as the privacy policy. There are also options to send comments via email or even snail mail.

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