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. 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. First, 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. In September, the International Association of Chiefs of Police 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.
Recently, the Government Accountability Office released a report, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Measuring Progress and Addressing Potential Privacy Concerns Would Facilitate Integration into the National Airspace System,” (archive pdf). The report recommended that the government address privacy issues with the domestic use of drones. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said in January that his department is considering the use of drones to conduct surveillance of crowds. (Read a previous post for more on public and private groups that have applied to the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones or UAVs in the United States.)
Now, there is news concerning two cities saying no to drones and federal legislation on the surveillance aircraft. The Seattle, Wash., police department had planned to start using two drones that it had bought through a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. However, there has been public opposition to the plan to use drones and critics have raised privacy and civil liberty questions.
Now, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has decided to scrap the plan for police to use surveillance drones. In a short statement, he said: “Today I spoke with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority. The vehicles will be returned to the vendor.” Read more about this in the Seattle Times, “Seattle grounds police drone program.”
Charlottesville, Va., recently 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.'” (For more on legislation in the states concerning drones, read a recent op-ed in Slate by the ACLU. Edited to add: There’s also a roundup of domestic drone legislation in the states at the ACLU’s Free Future blog.)
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Ted Poe (R-Tex.) announced they have introduced legislation concerning privacy and the domestic use of surveillance drones. The bill, H.R. 637, “The Preserving American Privacy Act” (bill pdf; summary pdf), seeks “to establish due process protections for Americans against government-operated unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in U.S. airspace. The bipartisan legislation would also forbid law enforcement and private UAS from being armed with firearms or explosives while operating within U.S. airspace,” the Congressmembers said. The Act includes provisions such as:
- Government-operated UAS must obtain a warrant to collect information that can identify individuals in a private area;
- Government-operated UAS must obtain a court order and provide public notice beforehand to collect information that can identify individuals in defined public areas;
- The warrant and court order requirements are subject to exceptions for emergencies, border security, and consent;
- Private UAS cannot capture visual images or sound recordings of individuals engaging in personal activities in certain circumstances in which the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy;
- State laws on the use of UAS in the airspace of the state are not preempted;
- Private and law enforcement UAS cannot use or operate UAS equipped with firearms or explosives in U.S. airspace.
For more on the federal legislation and state moves on the domestic use of surveillance drones, see the New York Times article, “Rise of Drones in U.S. Drives Efforts to Limit Police Use.”