House Lawmaker Drafts Bill Limiting Police Use of UAVs

The bill would require police to obtain warrants before unmanned aerial vehicles could be deployed as part of investigations
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A proposed bill would require police departments to obtain warrants before unmanned aerial vehicles could be deployed as part of investigations, and the proposal would limit the type of information that could be collected and how it can be used.

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Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus and a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is floating the draft bill because of concerns that UAVs could infringe on the citizens’ privacy.

The yet to be introduced Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act would amend the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (P.L. 122-95), which was signed into law by President Barack O’Bama on Feb. 14, 2012, and which directs the FAA to streamline the process for law enforcement, and others, to get UAVs flying.

The largest users of UAVs within the United States is law enforcement agencies, which currently number about 300, but that is expected to greatly increase because of the regulatory changes, that could lead to widespread use of surveillance drones in U.S. airspace (the FAA estimates that about 30,000 UAVs could be airborne by 2020).

Markey’s bill is the latest measure introduced by lawmakers from both parties who are concerned about the potential proliferation and possible abuse of UAVs, so the legislators want more transparency about the government’s use of such devices.

“When it comes to privacy protections for the American people, drones are flying blind,” Markey said in a statement. “Drones are already flying in U.S. airspace, with thousands more to come, but with no privacy protections or transparency measures in place. We are entering a brave new world, and just because a company soon will be able to register a drone license shouldn’t mean that company can turn it into a cash register by selling consumer information. Currently, there are no privacy protections or guidelines and no way for the public to know who is flying drones, where, and why. The time to implement privacy protections is now,” he said.

However, a Department of Justice UAV expert disputes the claim that law enforcement agencies will use UAVs to generally to spy on average citizens. “The misconception is that UAVs are going to be used for spying, and that your local sheriff is now part of a Stalinist-like secret police that is trying to gather as much data about you as possible,” said Tim Adelman, an aviation technology program legal consultant with the DoJ’s National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center. That belief is “just not reality,” he said.

Law enforcement agencies are already “tapped to the max” and they do not have the manpower to fly those aircraft around for the sole purpose of spying on people, Adelman said. “The other reality of this is there are existing laws, the Fourth Amendment,” he said. “All the cases that interpret the Fourth Amendment really set boundaries when law enforcement can use UAVs with or without a warrant,” he said. “There hasn’t been a pandemic of spying that people keep talking about because the law doesn’t permit it.”

Nonetheless, Markey’s yet to be introduced bill would add several provisions to the FAA act. Those provisions would:

  • Require the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with the Commerce Department, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Homeland Security to study and report back to Congress on the privacy impacts of drone use.
  • Require the FAA to include privacy considerations in its rule making process for drone licenses, using FTC guidelines as the standard.
  • Forbid the FAA from issuing drone licenses unless the application includes detailed information that “explains exactly what kind of data will be collected, how that data will be used, and how the licensee will protect privacy.”
  • Require law enforcement agencies, their contractors and subcontractors, to state “how they will minimize the collection and retention of data unrelated to the investigation of a crime.”
  • Direct the FAA to create a publicly available website which lists all approved UAV licenses, any security breaches by a drone operator and the times and locations of UAV flights.

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