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    Update: GAO Report Recommends Government Address Privacy Issues With Drones

    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, “UAVs”) to conduct surveillance. Several 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. (Read a previous post for more on the privacy and civil liberty questions, as well as deadlines for domestic use of drones.) Also, read these previous news articles on the issue, from: the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today. In July, drone makers sought to answer concerns by releasing voluntary guidelines, but privacy questions remain. The voluntary code of conduct, which is not legally binding on the companies that agree to abide by the guidelines. The code states, “We will respect the privacy of individuals.” There are no details on how individuals’ privacy will be respected. Also, there are security questions, as well, as a recent drone “hijacking” proves.

    Recently, the Telegraph reported that UK police are discussing the use of aerial drones to conduct general surveillance of British citizens, which raises privacy and civil liberties questions. Also, the Washington Times reported that the International Association of Chiefs of Police has adopted a code of conduct (pdf) for the use of drones in the United States for surveillance of the public. However, although the document has statements such as “Unauthorized use of a UA will result in strict accountability,” there is no information about what such accountability means. Also, the Congressional Research Service (the investigative arm of Congress), recently released a report (pdf) concerning the Fourth Amendment implications of the domestic use of drones.

    Now, the Government Accountability Office has released a new report, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Measuring Progress and Addressing Potential Privacy Concerns Would Facilitate Integration into the National Airspace System,” (GAO pdf; archive pdf). The report recommends that the government address privacy issues with the domestic use of drones. Here’s an excerpt from the summary:

    Concerns about national security, privacy, and the interference in Global Positioning- System (GPS) signals have not been resolved and may influence acceptance of routine access for UAS in the national airspace system. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has the authority to regulate security of all modes of transportation, including non-military UAS. Working with FAA and other federal agencies, TSA implements security procedures, such as airspace restrictions like those limiting operations into and out of Ronald Reagan National Airport. In 2008, GAO recommended that TSA examine the security implications of non-military UAS. According to a TSA official, it recently reviewed its UAS related advisories and determined that they are still applicable. TSA has not provided information on its efforts to mitigate security implications of UAS, and GAO believes TSA should act on this recommendation.

    Stakeholder privacy concerns include the potential for increased amounts of government surveillance using technologies placed on UAS, the collection and use of such data, and potential violations of constitutional Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures. Currently, no federal agency has specific statutory responsibility to regulate privacy matters relating to UAS for the entire federal government. Some stakeholders have suggested that DHS or the Department of Justice (DOJ) might be better positioned to address privacy issues since they generally stem from the operational uses of UAS for governmental surveillance and law enforcement purposes. Working proactively to address security and privacy concerns could help prevent further delays in UAS integration. Finally, non-military UAS GPS signals are unencrypted, risking potential interruption of the command and control of UAS.

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