In the last year, that has been increasing focus on the use of aerial drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, “UAVs”) to conduct surveillance in the United States. Last year, the Washington Post had an in-depth report of possible privacy problems with the domestic use of aerial drones, which are commonly used in military operations. (Be sure to take a look at the Post’s graphic on the specs, abilities and uses of different UAVs.) The ACLU released a report on this technology, “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft” (ACLU pdf; archive pdf). The Center for Democracy and Technology has looked into the privacy issues that can arise from commercial and domestic law enforcement use of drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized the use of hundreds of drones in U.S. airspace in recent years but offered few details on who is operating them.
This week, a privacy advocacy group filed suit to force the Department of Transportation to release its records publicly.
“Drones give the government and other unmanned aircraft operators a powerful new surveillance tool to gather extensive and intrusive data on Americans’ movements and activities,” said Jennifer Lynch, attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Northern California. “As the government begins to make policy decisions about the use of these aircraft, the public needs to know more about how and why these drones are being used to surveil United States citizens.”
The FAA regulates the operation of drones domestically, and only occasionally grants permission to the federal and local agencies seeking authority to fly unmanned vehicles. But those decisions, civil liberties groups point out, are based on safety concerns, not privacy concerns.
With growing interest in drones and their applications — to patrol U.S. borders, to search for criminal suspects, even to track the spread of forest fires — privacy advocates are now showing increasing concern about the policies guiding their use. […]
A spokesman for the FAA, Les Dorr Jr., declined comment on the suit.
The Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are among the agencies that have used drones domestically. Some drone manufacturers and academic institutions have also been granted authority for research or training purposes.
But the FAA is expected to soon formulate new rules on the use of lightweight drones — perhaps by early this spring, Dorr said.