Federal aviation regulators have given permission to colleges, universities and government and law enforcement agencies around the country to fly unmanned drones, according to documents received via a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
EFF released a list of over 50 institutions that have received permission to pilot unmanned drones over the U.S. The list includes notable universities like Cornell University, Texas A&M, and the University of Wisconsin and federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, as well as local law enforcement agencies like Arlington Police Department and the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office.
Congress passed legislation in February, ordering Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to craft regulations for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015. The legislation would also order the FAA to expedite the process the authorization process for the use of drones by federal, state, and local police and other agencies by the end of the yea.
According to the Washington Times, DHS is the only federal agency that openly discusses how it uses drones in U.S. airspace. U.S. Border Patrol operates nine drones, variants of the CIA predator drone, which are used mainly for border and counternarctotics surveillance under four, long-term FAA certificates.
DHS officials also note that unmanned drones are not only used for surveillance, but also in disaster relief, like fighting fires or finding missing hikers or campers.
In the past, the FAA has issued hundreds of certificates to police and other government agencies to allow drone flights over the U.S. The Times reports that the FAA issued 313 certificates in 2011, and that 295 of them were still active at the end of the year. But the FAA doesn’t disclose which agencies have certificates or what they use them for.
Also pushing hard for the legislation is the rapidly growing unmanned systems aircraft industry. Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said the legislation, which creates several deadlines for the FAA to report progress to Congress, “will move the [drones] issue up their list of priorities.”
Critics argue that loosening restrictions on unmanned drone flights over the U.S. gives government and other institutions powerful surveillance equipment that could be used to gather intrusive data about Americans.
“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,” EFF staff attorney Jennifer Lynch said.
“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,” she added.
Reps. Edward Markey, Democrat from Massachusetts, and Joe Barton, Republican from Texas, wrote a letter, asking the acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta to answer questions about the privacy implications of increased drone use.
“Now that the FAA has initiated the rulemaking process for implementing the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the agency has the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected and that the public is fully informed about who is using drones in public airspace and why,” the letter said.
The Wall Street Journal noted one expert, Stanford Law School researcher Ryan Calo, who said “the domestic use of drones will likely grow as more machines are brought back from war and as prices fall.”
“If you bring back a tank from Afghanistan, you don’t expect it to show up in a park,” Calo said.
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