Selfie Drones Jump Into Safety, Privacy Debate

Posted September 4th, 2015 at 2:57 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

An attendee wears a prototype Nixie camera drone during the International CES, Jan. 8, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP)

An attendee wears a prototype Nixie camera drone during the International CES, Jan. 8, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP)

A new breed of so-called selfie drones is making its debut as more and more drones take to the skies amid increasing concerns about safety and privacy.

These small, devices, some of which are wearable, make it easier to launch a drone with the flick of a wrist to take a selfie or track and photograph certain activities.

The problem is that drones are already banned in numerous venues in the United States, including sports arenas that are designated by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as “national defense airspace,” national parks, college campuses, and more recently, the sites Pope Francis will visit when he comes to Washington on September 22.

Safety is a primary concern. The FAA has clear regulations on the operation of recreational or hobbyist drones – also referred to as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (AUS) and model aircraft – to ensure that they do not jeopardize air traffic or get sucked into the engine of an airliner, for example.

Nevertheless, reports of more frequent encounters between drones and commercial flights continue to rise.

An ongoing problem in most cases is the inability to identify and track drone operators, particularly if sighting reports are not specific or are inaccurate. But an FAA spokesman told TECHtonics that efforts are underway to address this issue; and that some measures might require Congressional authorization.

Brian Wynne, President and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) said his group “supports the registration of unmanned aircraft and UAS operators flying commercially with the FAA to help identify them.” But he urged operators to visit Know Before You Fly, an educational campaign website, to learn more about restrictions and rules before they buy a drone.

AUVSI has been urging the FAA to complete safety rules for commercial unmanned aircraft systems operations that would require all operators to follow either commercial aircraft rules or safety guidelines of community-based organizations. The FAA faces a September 30 deadline to complete the new regulations.

“Once the rules are finalized, consumers will no longer be able to fly without oversight and education,” said Wynne in an email.

But the conversation about safety is far from over. And privacy concerns are coming to the forefront as more and more recreational and commercial drones take to the skies in coming months, possibly equipped with cameras, facial recognition and other technologies.

A case in point is the recent misadventure of an enterprising drone operator who photographed a monk enjoying the solitude on top of a wind turbine at a Rhode Island private school and then posted the picture online, presumably without license.

U.S. regulators have been unable to formulate privacy rules for drones. And the FAA has come under fire for not having more comprehensive privacy regulations in this regard.

But Wynne argued that there is already a “robust legal framework in place to protect Americans’ right to privacy.”

“And these laws apply to UAS just like any other technology,” he said. “For more than 220 years, the Fourth Amendment has been applied to new technologies used in warrantless observations and it will continue to be applied to UAS and other future technologies.”

Wynne argued that privacy policies should focus on how data is collected and used, not on the type of device collecting the data.

But privacy advocates like the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which sued the FAA in search of more comprehensive privacy rulings, are more concerned about the use of commercial drones, particularly if equipped with facial recognition tools, thermal sensors, and other tracking technologies.

“There are virtually no laws or regulations to address the commercial use of drones to collect mass amounts of data on the public,” said Jeramie Scott, EPIC’s National Security Counsel and Privacy Coalition Coordinator. “For example, there are currently no transparency requirements imposed on the commercial use of drones to meaningfully inform the public of what information is collected, what the information is used for, and how long that information is retained.”

Scott added in an email that Americans “should not have to wait years to uncover how commercial industry is using drones to collect data on the public. That’s a problem.”

Congress has been pushing for more comprehensive guidelines to address privacy concerns. And in February, U.S. President Barack Obama directed the Commerce Department’s NTIA – the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – to develop best practices for privacy and accountability with regard to the use of commercial and private UAS.

An NTIA spokeswoman said in an email that “stakeholders continue to work toward a code of conduct” regarding the privacy implications of drones equipped with facial recognition technologies.

“The FAA’s Roadmap notes that there is no Federal law that specifically addresses privacy concerns with respect to civil UAS operations,” she said. “We are encouraged by the breadth of participation at our first multistakeholder meeting last month, where representatives from industry, academia and consumer privacy groups actively participated in the discussion. As in any multistakeholder engagement, the outcome will be determined only by the participants themselves.”

The agency’s recommendations will be non-binding. But if you are eyeing one of those selfie drones, consider that the laws of the land still apply for trespassing, voyeurism and stalking and that the FAA defines an aircraft as “a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air, meaning that the drone is subject to all applicable regulations.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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