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Senator Pushes for Protection From Drones' Prying Eyes

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass. // Steven Senne/AP

As the Federal Aviation Administration assesses whether commercial skies are ready for commercial, nonmilitary drones in the near future, some lawmakers are attempting to capitalize on the data-surveillance debate by pushing for preemptive privacy regulations on the still-grounded industry.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill this week that would require law-enforcement agencies to earn a warrant before conducting any surveillance via any unmanned aircraft. The bill would also make drone applications include statements detailing the purpose and location of any drone and how any data collected is intended to be used; it would also require the FAA to maintain a website listing licenses issued and other information about approved drones.

“Before countless commercial drones begin to fly overhead, we must ground their operation in strong rules to protect privacy and promote transparency,” Markey said in a statement. “This legislation requires transparency on the domestic use of drones and adds privacy protections that ensure this technology cannot and will not be used to spy on Americans.”

Drone lobbyists contend that a bill such as Markey’s is unfairly “singling out” drones and would create an uneven legal standard for data collected from unmanned aircraft, a technology that by some estimates could become a $90 billion industry and create up to 100,000 jobs.

“If privacy is going to be addressed in Congress, it needs to be done in a technology-neutral way,” said Ben Gielow, government-relations manager with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which opposes Markey’s bill. “Who cares if the pilot is on the ground versus in the actual aircraft?”

Gielow and others say they don’t oppose privacy and transparency requirements on surveillance writ large; but reform needs to happen more evenly, they say, and government agencies, not the private sector, should bear the brunt of such transparency and privacy safeguards.

But the ongoing fallout from the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance programs and the lack of transparency of its bulk-data collection show the dangers of not addressing privacy concerns before they become codified, abusive, and more difficult to rein in, said Jeramie Scott, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center who supports Markey’s bill.

The NSA scandal is “going to make the public as well as the drone industry more sensitive to the privacy topic,” Scott said. “It’s a clear example what can happen when the issues of privacy are not dealt with in an up-front and transparent manner.”

Last year, Congress instructed the FAA to determine whether it could make it safe for unmanned drones to fly by 2015. Tens of thousands of drones are expected to take to the skies in decades to follow; the possibilities for how they might be used are nearly as limitless as their potential quantity, and they cut across virtually all industries, including farming, science research, and criminal justice.

Markey introduced virtually the same legislation earlier this year when he was still in the House. That bill has since been picked up by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

Although it has previously missed report deadlines on the subject, the FAA could issue an update later this week that includes a progress report on its testing at six sites around the country of how drones could affect commercial airline service.

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