Privacy in the Age of Drone Fever: Now is The Time to Build Consumer Trust and Craft Privacy Best Practices for Commercial Use of UAS

We’re in the midst of “drone fever” in our country:  Companies can’t wait to use UAS for everything from filmmaking, journalism and package delivery, to precision agriculture and industrial and business security.

On the same day the FAA released its proposed rules for small UAS, the White House took an important parallel step.  On February 15, a Presidential Memorandum was issued to govern privacy, transparency and accountability aspects of the federal government’s own use of drones in the United States.  More importantly, it established a multi-stakeholder engagement process to craft similar guidelines for commercial and private drones, to be hosted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the Department of Commerce.

The establishment of a multi-stakeholder process to craft best practices for privacy guidelines for commercial UAS use marks an important step forward for the industry.  For all the excitement surrounding the significant potential for the use of drones, the American public has also been vocal with its privacy fears.  Apprehension in times of innovation is common, and also understandable.  When cameras were first invented, we worried others would take our picture without consent.  When the U.S. Postal Service was first established, we were troubled that strangers would read our mail.  Decades later, individuals worry that UAS will be used to spy on them in their backyards.  Companies fear that competitors will be able to use UAS to watch their property or projects, or potentially steal trade secrets.

It is time to make progress on these issues.  The NTIA just announced that it is requesting comment on the substance and structure of the UAS multi-stakeholder process.  Stakeholders have 45 days to offer their comments.  The private sector should seize this important opportunity to move the conversation forward.

The NTIA Request for Comment asks stakeholders what they think about privacy and UAS use generally.  It also asks for help scoping the project:  How should they consider transparency, accountability, and privacy issues with regard to UAS?

Specific questions NTIA is asking include:

Do some UAS-enabled commercial services raise unique or heightened privacy issues?

What specific best practices would mitigate the most pressing privacy challenges while supporting innovation?

What information should commercial UAS operators make public?

How can UAS operators ensure that oversight procedures for commercial and private UAS operation comply with relevant policies and best practices?

Should discussions be divided to address the needs of different aircraft sizes or commercial uses?

For a clue as to how the government may approach these issues in the commercial drones context, it is helpful to consider the limitations the federal government placed on its own use of drones in the Presidential Memorandum.  The White House imposed specific operational and reporting controls on the government’s use of drones, including data collection, retention, dissemination and use limitations—as well as civil liberties and accountability protections.  These same issues will be raised in the commercial and private drones context.

Technology moves more quickly than policymaking, and innovators typically shun policymakers as impeding progress—often for good reason.  But to achieve our collective goal of integrating the national airspace safely and effectively, innovators and policymakers must work together.  This is a two-way street.  Any company seriously interested to participate in this dynamic and growing industry must participate thoughtfully in this important effort.

We have 45 days to make comments and allow our concerns to be heard.  Please participate.  The ability to fully realize the significant commercial benefits of UAS technology will depend on the success of this effort.

(Originally posted March 4, 2015)

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