ACLU: Domestic drones create ‘unavoidable privacy concerns’

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing for the Federal Aviation Administration to address the “unavoidable privacy concerns” that stem from the domestic use of drones.

Commercial and academic institutions are anticipating that future use of drones — or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), as they are called by the industry and the government — in civilian airspace could be a significant economic and scientific innovation.

However, privacy and civil liberties advocates like the ACLU have expressed concerns about how the use of UAS by domestic law enforcement agencies might infringe upon Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

The FAA, which is set to establish six UAS test sites around the country for the next five years, began soliciting comments from the public in February on its proposed approach to address privacy concerns about the operation of machines at test sites.

In a letter sent to the FAA on Tuesday, the ACLU said that the introduction of UAS by into the National Airspace System “creates unavoidable privacy concerns that the FAA must address head on.”

“We applaud the FAA for considering the privacy problems raised by UAS and initiating this rulemaking to ensure that the test site selection process does not result in privacy violations,” said the ACLU.

The civil liberties organization stressed the need for stricter regulations at the test sites to protect privacy and ensure government oversight.  The ACLU also suggested that the FAA consider whether “the proposed test site operators have experience with ethics and privacy issues, and ensure that the privacy impacts on urban areas are included.”

“While UAS can certainly be used in beneficial ways that do not violate privacy, comprehensive privacy oversight by the FAA at this preliminary stage is necessary to ensure that notions of privacy govern the way surveillance technology is used, and not the other way around,” said the ACLU.

During a March Senate Judiciary Hearing on drones, Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), testified that the AUSVI did not support the weaponization of domestic UAS.

“As we focus on the use of UAS by law enforcement, it is important to recognize the robust legal framework already in place, rooted in the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution and decades of case law, which regulates how law enforcement uses any technology – whether it is unmanned aircraft, manned aircraft, thermal imaging, GPS, or cell phones,” said Toscano.

AUSVI — which is the trade association representing the global UAS industry — also endorsed guidelines published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police on how law enforcement should use unmanned aircraft.

Toscano stressed that “safeguarding people’s privacy” was important to the UAS industry.

“These guidelines were not only praised by our industry, but the ACLU as well,” he said.

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