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News & Notes

Your Drone Data is at Risk

This bill wants to restrict your freedom to capture drone data

March 29, 2017

On March 15, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) submitted the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2017, a bill aiming to maintain privacy standards in the age of drones.

Privacy concerns are a continual hurdle for the drone industry — and a hurdle for which few solutions have been proposed.  While this bill attempts to solve the privacy problem, it raises some serious concerns for the drone industry itself.

The problem

For the general public, the concept of an “eye in the sky” is somewhat uncomfortable. Many operators in the drone industry are familiar with the questions that come from passers-by: does the drone have a camera, are you filming, etc.

Countless sensationalized news stories about drones peeping and spying upon unsuspecting victims only complicate the issue — despite the fact that drones are not optimal platforms for discreet acquisition of personal information.

So there are many people who are disquieted by the sight of a drone hovering in their neighborhood, over their parks, and along their beaches. The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2017 hopes to settle the issue of drones and privacy once and for all.
The bill

The bill opens with an explanation that drones have a potential to “enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections.” It claims that as the law stands currently, there are no privacy protections in place with specific reference to drone technology.

The privacy protections that the bill hopes to put into place are, for the most part, related to a disclosure of information from drone pilots. This information would be compiled into a “data collection statement.”

If the bill were to pass, no “certificate, license, or other grant of authority” could be used without a data collection statement. Such a statement would need to include the following information:
  • Who will operate the drone
  • Where the drone will fly
  • Maximum flight times
  • Possible impact of drone operation on privacy of individuals
  • Phone number or email
  • Whether the drone will collect data about groups or individuals
  • Possible impact of flight upon individuals’ privacy
If the drone will be collecting data about a person or group of people, the following information would also need to be included in the data collection statement:
  • What information is being collected
  • How that data will be used, disclosed, and handled
  • How unrelated data will be minimized
  • How long data will be retained
The only exception listed for the above requirements is for newsgathering purposes.

Law enforcement agencies would have the additional requirement of compiling a data minimization statement, which would detail the policies for minimizing collection of information unrelated to criminal investigations and require the destruction or that unrelated information. They would also need a warrant to use drones to gather data.

Additionally, the bill would require the creation of a publicly searchable database of drone operators. The database would include their contact information, drone registration number, relevant licenses and certificates, and details of  “where, when, and for what purpose each unmanned aircraft system will be operated.”

Operators found to be in violation of these proposed rules could be fined up to $1,000 for each unintentional violation and $3,000 for each intentional violation — as well as revocation of the operator’s FAA certificate or license.
The industry

While the requirements of the bill are well intended, they would place an immense burden on the drone industry. Already, the commercial drone industry is responding to the proposed bill.

The Commercial Drone Alliance, a nonprofit advocating for the use of commercial drones, argues that there are already laws in place to protect the public without being drone-specific.

"Our existing standards are technology neutral, covering photos captured by hand-held cameras, smartphones, telephoto lenses, helicopters, and UAS without distinction,” said the Alliance in a statement. “These rules are further strengthened by prohibitions against trespassing, stalking, and peeping toms.”

The Alliance also brings up concerns about the bill’s potential infringement upon First Amendment rights and undue burden upon the drone industry.

“The disclosures also create a significant administrative burden for UAS operators and the federal government, which would need to accurately and appropriately maintain, use, protect, and share this information, without a clear sense of how this information will meaningfully protect the public,” said the Alliance in a statement.

For now, the bill is just that — a bill. But it’s something to keep an eye on as it progresses through the legislative process. For the time being, the Alliance urges drone operators to adhere to the industry’s voluntary best practices for privacy and accountability.
Featured image: pixabay/MichaelGaida