U.S. Congress should act on drone privacy

The U.S. Congress is set to negotiate an updated set of rules governing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an agency with regulatory power over the U.S. airspace. The FAA began its work on drones after the 2012 FAA reauthorization required the agency to create a roadmap for integrating drones into the national airspace. However, the FAA has left largely unaddressed the significant privacy implications of widespread drone use.

Now, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts has proposed a series of amendments to the reauthorization bill that would serve as a first step in creating privacy rules. Access Now supports congressional action on drone privacy and urges Congress to approve Senator Markey’s amendments.

This reauthorization provides the best opportunity yet to establish baseline drone privacy rules. Right now, drone operators have few federally mandated privacy requirements, leaving users exposed to the capture and use of their personal information. The FAA has expressly refused to promulgate privacy standards for drones, and neither the U.S. Congress nor the Obama administration has yet set forth binding rules.

Privacy rules are even more important given the imminent use of drones to deliver internet service and other commercial uses. In 2015, President Obama ordered the Department of Commerce to facilitate a process to create “best practices” for privacy. The process has been on-going for several months, but so far there has been significant pushback for any serious rules, which wouldn’t be binding even with agreement. Some states have passed laws on drones, although few address commercial use in a way that can withstand constitutional muster.

Senator Markey’s amendments would, among other things, require commercial drone users to develop privacy policies, create a drone rulemaking process in the FAA, and expand an already-proposed database of commercial drone users to increase transparency regarding the use of personal information.

The Markey amendments would serve as a first step toward establishing privacy protections, but more can and should be done to ensure user information is secured, information use is limited to what is identified in privacy policies, and users are empowered to consent to those uses. Access Now calls on Congress to protect industry innovation while ensuring user privacy is protected.