Senate Commerce Committee Hearing Explores Drone Use Privacy Concerns

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Jan. 16 --The expanding use of unmanned aircraft, or drones, for government and business purposes raises privacy concerns, witnesses said at a Jan. 15 Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing.

The hearing was called to discuss the Federal Aviation Administration's ongoing regulatory effort concerning drone use.

Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (H.R. 658), which was signed into law Feb. 14, 2012, the FAA is required to fully integrate unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace by October 2015. The FAA is testing unmanned aircraft as part of its effort.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta cited in his prepared testimony his agency's Nov. 6, 2013, release of an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) privacy policy.

The policy is designed to “enable interested organizations and government partners to evaluate a broad range of information provided by the work done at the test sites and assess the potential impact of UAS operations on privacy concerns,” he said.

'Managing the Risks.'

Although the use of drones presents “tremendous economic potential,” Congress “can't ignore the threat they pose to our personal privacy,” Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said in his prepared opening statement.

“American consumers are already under assault by companies that collect and use our personal information,” he said, citing the recent hearing on data brokers his committee held Dec. 18, 2013 .

Rockefeller said “our job is to foster the growth of this new industry while managing the risks.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the committee, said in his prepared opening statement that the committee should “think beyond the now-common image of military-style drones” when considering privacy issues for unmanned aircraft.

Amazon.com Inc.'s December 2013 announcement that it is exploring the use of drones to deliver packages may have already moved the debate forward, he said.

Need for Legislation?

Yamaha Motor Corp. U.S.A. Vice President of Corporate Planning Henio Arcangeli told the panel in his prepared testimony that a 9 foot long, 140 pound unmanned remote-controlled helicopter (RMAX) has been in use for over 20 years to conduct crop dusting and other agricultural activities.

“During its more than two decades of use, the RMAX has safely logged over 1.8 million total flight hours without, to our knowledge, a single privacy complaint,” he said.

Arcangeli told the committee that the FAA could effectively oversee drone use largely within existing federal laws and regulations and international standards. “We urge Congress to give the FAA the authority and flexibility to authorize products like the RMAX for precision agricultural and other appropriate commercial uses,” he said.

But Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union said in his prepared testimony that “drone technology is quickly becoming cheaper and more powerful while our privacy laws have not kept up with the technology.”

In the past, the relatively high cost of drones limited their use, he said, but the “prospect of cheap, small, portable flying surveillance platforms threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance.”

Calabrese said that “many of the most significant potential harms from unchecked use of drones come from the government. Unfortunately, we won't know for many years whether the constitutional protections enshrined in the Fourth Amendment will be able to provide meaningful protections against abuse.” The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled in any case involving the use of drones, he said.

“Congress should place immediate, robust restriction on the government use of drones, especially as part of criminal investigations, in order to prevent mass aerial surveillance,” he said.

As for private sector use of drones, Calabrese said, Congress “should take a more deliberate path--one that recognizes the serious privacy dangers, limits sharing with government, explores existing legal protections and actively monitors privacy rules promulgated by the FAA.”


Further information on the Jan. 15 hearing--“The Future of Unmanned Aviation in the U.S. Economy: Safety and Privacy Considerations”-- including links to the prepared testimony of witnesses, is available at http://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=Hearings.