In an opinion column at the Washington Post, the Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes and John Villasenor discuss privacy and other problems with the use of aerial drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, “UAVs”) to conduct surveillance in the United States. Earlier this year, the FAA reauthorization bill was passed, which includes a provision to integrate the use of aerial surveillance by drones in the United States by Sept. 30, 2015. Wittes and Villasenor write:
In February, President Obama signed into law a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that requires the agency — on a fairly rapid schedule — to write rules opening U.S. airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles. This puts the FAA at the center of a potentially dramatic set of policy changes that stand to usher in a long list of direct and indirect benefits. But the FAA is not a privacy agency. And although real privacy concerns have arisen about these aircraft, asking the agency to take on the role of privacy czar for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would be a mistake.
UAVs, commonly known as drones, offer real promise for an array of domestic applications. In an era of ever-tighter budgets, they could dramatically reduce the cost to law enforcement agencies and private companies involved in gathering vital — in some cases, lifesaving — information. […]
Significant concerns have also arisen about the possibility that law enforcement agencies, companies and private individuals might exploit UAVs to acquire invasive imagery. The current legal framework with respect to observations from above by government is not particularly protective of privacy.
Two of the most relevant Supreme Court cases, California v. Ciraolo in 1986 and Florida v. Riley in 1989, addressed law enforcement’s use of manned aircraft to perform surveillance of a suspect’s property. In both cases, the court held that observations made from “public navigable airspace” in the absence of a warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment. […]
Against this backdrop, a coalition of civil liberties groups has petitioned the FAA “to conduct a rulemaking to address the threat to privacy and civil liberties that will result from the deployment of aerial drones within [the] United States.” Another civil liberties group suggested that “on its own authority, the FAA can — and should — investigate the possible negative effects of flying drones in U.S. airspace” to “ferret out potential privacy problems and find solutions.” On Thursday, the co-chairs of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus wrote to the FAA “to express our concerns about the law’s potential privacy implications and to request information about how the FAA is addressing these important matters.” The potential for abuses on the part of government actors, corporations and even individuals is real — and warrants serious consideration before some set of incidents poisons public attitudes against a field that promises great benefits.
Read the full opinion column for more on the privacy questions surrounding this issue.