In a response to questions from lawmakers, the Federal Aviation Authority admitted that surveillance drone operators have zero privacy obligations, prompting Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) to complain that the federal agency is greasing the skids for authorities to gather private information on regular Americans.
Markey and Barton, who co-chair the congressional privacy caucus, sent a letter to the FAA seven months ago demanding to know what privacy protections the agency was putting in place in anticipation of granting approval for commercial groups to fly drones from 2015 onwards.
In its reply (PDF) , the federal agency responded to a question asking whether drone operators had to follow guidelines that address privacy concerns by stating, “The FAA’s primary mission is ensuring safety of the NAS (National AIrspace System).” While acknowledging that there were “privacy concerns related to UAS operations,” the agency did not indicate that it would mandate drone operators to follow any privacy rules.
Four additional questions on how the FAA plans to protect privacy rights are also included under question 7 in the letter. However, the FAA’s response to all of them is a single glib paragraph which merely repeats that “privacy concerns” are an issue but fails to identify what the agency will do to uphold them.
“FAA does not appear to be prioritizing privacy and transparency measures in its plan to integrate nonmilitary drones into U.S. airspace,” Markey said in a follow up statement. “While there are benefits to using drones to gather information for law enforcement and appropriate research purposes, drones shouldn’t be used to gather private information on regular Americans.”
A bill passed by Congress in February paves the way for the use of surveillance drones in US skies on a widespread basis. The FAA predicts that by 2020 there could be up to 30,000 drones in operation nationwide.
US law enforcement bodies are already using drone technology to spy on Americans. In December last year, aPredator B drone was called in to conduct surveillance over a family farm in North Dakota as part of a SWAT raid on the Brossart family, who were suspects in the egregious crime of stealing six missing cows. Local police in this one area have already used the drone on two dozen occasions since June last year.
The Department of Homeland Security has revealed it plans to use spy drones for “public safety applications” and has already begun tests of a “Robotic Aircraft For Public Safety” at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Police departments are also attempting to get approval to use surveillance blimps that sit over cities and watch for “suspicious activity.”
The U.S. Army recently tested a football field-sized blimp over the city of New Jersey. The blimp can fly for a period of 21 hours and “is equipped with high-tech sensors that can monitor insurgents from above.”