The Federal Aviation Administration's recent approval of a company's request to operate 324 drones for "aerial data acquisition" is ratcheting up the long-running debate between privacy advocates, tech innovators, corporations, and government regulators over unmanned flying vehicles.
The August 28 decision allows a Washington, DC-based company, called "Measure," to fly the largest fleet of commercial drones on record, a FAA spokesman told VICE News. The company has produced reports with the American Red Cross and the American Farm Bureau on how bird's eye views could help first responders in a disaster or farmers seeking to maximize their harvests.
"Measure now has the ability to leverage the vast number of high quality aircraft available for our customers," said Measure CEO Brandon Torres Declet in a statement. "Drones can be used for an ever-growing number of data collection applications."
That language echoes comments made recently by Amazon founder and drone booster Jeff Bezos, who said drones delivering packages will one day be as "common as seeing a mail truck."
But not everyone is comfortable with swarms of quadcopters buzzing overhead.
"Right now there are virtually no laws to address the commercial use of drones to collect massive amounts of data on the public," said Jeramie Scott, national security counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, in an interview with VICE News. "Drones are basically flying surveillance platforms that can be equipped with numerous technologies, including facial and license plate recognition technology."
It's important to note that the FAA granted Measure an exemption to fly its drones. That's because, currently, it's technically illegal for businesses to fly unmanned aerial vehicles unless they obtain a FAA waiver. The FAA has granted more than 1,000 exemptions so far as it drafts regulations to govern drones.
But the FAA's proposed rules, as currently written, address only safety. The National Telecommunications & Information Administration, meanwhile, is considering how the federal government might address drones and privacy.
EPIC is suing the FAA in federal court, claiming the agency should be considering privacy issues, too. The group wants the FAA to mandate that commercial drone operators make public what they're collecting, how they're collecting it and how long they intend to keep it. Those requirements would make it easier for the public to discuss whether or not to restrict drone surveillance for commercial purposes, like companies watching potential pedestrian's movements on the streets for market research, Scott argued.
"I don't think, for example, that facial recognition should be run without my consent on me," said Scott. "I think that crosses the line."
While the federal government drafts its regulations, state governments are instituting a hodgepodge of rules.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 26 states have enacted laws regulating drones, often with the aim of dissuading peeping toms whose drone use has prompted violent reactions, like the Kentucky father who shot down a drone he thought was spying on his sunbathing daughters. (The pilot claimed he was snapping photos of a friend's nearby house).
A day before the FAA approved Measure's application, California lawmakers sent a bill to the desk of Governor Jerry Brown that would include drones under laws prohibiting people from trespassing on private property and taking photographs or recording people's conversation without permission.
"Drones are a new and exciting technology with many potentially beneficial uses," said State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, in a press release. "But they should not be able to invade the privacy of our backyards and our private property without our permission."
Brown hasn't said whether he will sign or veto the bill. Amazon, Google and others oppose the measure, saying it would stifle innovation.
Scott didn't buy that argument. He's not against drones. He just doesn't want to give corporations the ability to use the devices without regulating how they can be used.
"I don't understand the innovation argument," he said. "If you can't innovate around rules that protect people's privacy, you are not being innovative."
Follow John Dyer on Twitter at @johnjdyerjr
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