FAA Plans to Carry Out Privacy Tests in Six Drone “Test Zones”

by Jay Stanley, ACLU.org  |  published on December 2, 2012

The FAA indicates that it plans to carry out privacy tests of drone technology as part of a “test site” program mandated by Congress, the agency revealed in a response to two lawmakers seeking information about drone privacy. Reps. Edward J. Markey (D, Mass.) and Joe Barton (R, Texas) released the FAA document yesterday, which was a response to an April letter from the two lawmakers about the agency’s efforts to address the privacy concerns surrounding domestic drones.

It has always been a question whether the FAA would step up and involve itself in privacy issues. In our report on domestic drones last year, we took the position that,

Just as the FAA regulates drones to ensure that they are safe, so, too, should drones be regulated so they are not used in ways that infringe on privacy. The FAA’s primary purpose is protecting the physical safety of the national airspace, but its mandate also extends to “protecting individuals . . . on the ground,” and the courts have suggested that this mandate is a broad one. Therefore, the FAA’s obligation to protect individuals on the ground should include protecting the privacy that Americans have traditionally enjoyed and rightly expect. If the agency refuses to do so, or is found by the courts to have limited powers in that area, then Congress should step in to directly enact any additional protections that are needed to preserve that privacy.

I can imagine a political scientist pointing out that the agency has no experience or “administrative capacity” to deal with privacy issues—but he or she might also predict that, like most bureaucracies, it should be more than happy to expand its powers and domain. In the months since we released that report in December of 2011, there has been little indication that the agency has any interest in looking at privacy. However, pressure has been rising on the agency to do so; there has been continuing bipartisan interest in the privacy issues surrounding drones. Just last month, for example, Rep. Ted Poe (R, Texas) held a House field forum on domestic drones, at which my ACLU colleague Chris Calabrese testified and members of both parties expressed concern over privacy. Barton and Markey’s letter to the FAA has no doubt been an important part of that pressure.

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