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    Update: Domestic Use of Drones and Privacy

    To recap: In the last year, there has been increasing focus on the issue of domestic use of aerial drones (also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles” or “unmanned aircraft systems,” UAV or UAS) to conduct surveillance. Months ago, Congress approved the FAA reauthorization bill, which includes a provision to integrate the use of aerial surveillance by drones in the United States by 2015. In July, drone makers sought to answer concerns by releasing voluntary guidelines, but privacy questions remain. Also, there are security questions, as well, as a recent drone “hijacking” proves. Recently, the FAA released its roadmap (pdf) for integrating the use of drones into domestic airspace as well as final privacy requirements (pdf) for the test-site program.

    This year, several states have passed or considered laws restricting the use of drones for surveillance in the United States. In February, Charlottesville, Va., became the first city in the United States to pass legislation against the domestic use of drones. U.S. News and World Report says: “The resolution, passed Monday, ‘calls on the United States Congress and the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia to adopt legislation prohibiting information obtained from the domestic use of drones from being introduced into a Federal or State court,’ and ‘pledges to abstain from similar uses with city-owned, leased, or borrowed drones.’” In April, Idaho passed a law, SB 1134, that would restrict the use of UAVs by law enforcement officials.

    In September, Texas passed a privacy law, HB 912(pdf), concerning the domestic use of drones for surveillance. However, this one is different from Idaho’s and Virginia’s laws. The Associated Press reports, “But Texas’ law tips the scales in police favor — giving them broad freedoms to use drones during investigations and allowing them to bypass a required search warrant if they have suspicions of illegal activity — while also limiting use of small drones by ordinary residents.”

    (There’s also a roundup of domestic drone legislation in the states at the ACLU’s Free Future blog if you’d like to know more.)

    Now, UPI takes a look at the use of drones for surveillance and other purposes in the United States and how this could affect individual privacy:

    Analyses in 2012 and earlier this year by United Press International and others predicted tens of thousands of drones will populate U.S. air space in the near future.

    But the drones, many of them launched by different levels of government or law enforcement, most launched by the private sector, will present a privacy challenge that inevitably will make a landing in federal courts, and ultimately in the U.S. Supreme Court. […]

    The [FAA] has taken applications from 25 teams in 24 states for the six test sites, which are meant to help integrate drones into U.S. air space. The FAA is expected to announce its selections this month.

    “The FAA’s mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world and does not include regulating privacy,” the agency policy statement said. “At the same time, the FAA recognizes that there is a substantial debate and difference of opinion among policy makers, industry, advocacy groups and members of the public as to whether UAS operations at the test sites will raise novel privacy issues that are not adequately addressed by existing legal frameworks.”

    Later the policy said, “Although there is a long history of placing cameras and other sensors on aircraft for a variety of purposes — news helicopters, aerial surveys, film/television production, law enforcement etc. — the FAA is not, through awarding and supervising these test sites, taking specific views on whether or how the federal government should regulate privacy or the scope of data that can be collected by manned or unmanned aircraft.” […]

    A report released early this year by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service raises a number of questions. […]

    “Because drone use will occur largely in federal airspace, Congress has the authority or can permit various federal agencies to set federal policy on drone use in American skies,” the report said. “This may include the appropriate level of individual privacy protection, the balancing of property interests with the economic needs of private entities, and the appropriate safety standards required.”

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