Congress to FAA: Don't let domestic drones spy on Americans

Reps. Markey and Barton fear sensor-packed drones will infringe on privacy.

The Federal Aviation Administration has cleared drone aircraft for widespread use in U.S. domestic airspace, and the chairmen of a congressional privacy caucus want to know how FAA will protect Americans from surveillance by operators of these aircraft, including police departments.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which President Obama signed on Feb. 14, calls for FAA to integrate operation of drones into its National Airspace System by 2015. The agency in March kicked off a rule-making to set up six unmanned aircraft system test ranges by this summer.

The language in the FAA bill and the rule-making both deal with safety issues and control of unmanned aircraft, but not privacy concerns, an issue the agency should address, Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, said in a letter sent Thursday to Michael Huerta, acting FAA administrator.

Many drones -- such as those the Defense Department and intelligence agencies use to snoop on enemies -- are designed to carry surveillance equipment, including video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar and wireless network detectors, raising questions about how the privacy of individuals will be safeguarded and how the public will be informed about drone activities, whether by law enforcement, commercial enterprises, or private individuals, Markey and Barton said.

"We must ensure that as drones take flight in domestic airspace, they don't take off without privacy protections for those along their flight path," Markey said in a statement.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation disclosed Thursday that some 60 organizations, including the military, universities and even police departments and sheriff offices, already have received limited authorization to operate drones. The revelation was based on documents the group received from FAA in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in January. EFF said it also received a list of more than 50 authorizations from FAA permitting manufacturers to test fly drones.

Markey and Barton told Huerta they wanted to know:

-- What privacy protections and public transparency requirements has FAA built into its current temporary licensing process for drones used in U.S. airspace?

-- Is the public notified about where and when drones are used, who operates them, what data are collected, how are the data used, how long are they retained, and who has access to that data?

-- How does FAA plan to ensure that drone activities under the new law is transparent and individual privacy rights are protected?

-- How will FAA determine whether an entity applying to operate a drone will properly address these privacy concerns?

"The potential for invasive surveillance of daily activities with drone technology is high," Markey said. "Standards for informing the public and ensuring safeguards must be put in place now to protect individual privacy. I look forward to the FAA's responses and will monitor this situation as the use of drone technology in our airspace increases."

Barton said while he knows "the usage of these unmanned aircraft would bring a great benefit to our local and state governments, as well as some businesses," he also has concerns about their misuse. "If used improperly or unethically, drones could endanger privacy, and I want to make sure that risk is taken into consideration," he said.

EFF said domestic drones pose "serious implications for privacy, and the public should have all the information necessary to engage in informed debate over the incorporation of these devices into our daily lives."

The original version of this story misstated Rep. Ed Markey's first name. It has been corrected.

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