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Forum Post: Combat Drones Soon To Fly Over U.S. Airspace

Posted 2 years ago on Feb. 15, 2012, 11:49 a.m. EST by SparkyJP (1646) from Westminster, MD
This content is user submitted and not an official statement

Congress is demanding drones in the air over the United States - without considering the civil liberties issues. Within the span of three days last week, the House and then the Senate passed a law - H.R. 658 - requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to speed up, within 90 days, its current licensing process for government use of drones domestically and to open the national airspace to drone aircraft for commercial and private use by October 2015. While the law requires the FAA to develop guidance on drone safety, the law says absolutely nothing about the privacy or transparency implications of filling the sky with flying robots.

As CDT and others have pointed out, drones are powerful surveillance devices capable of being outfitted with facial recognition cameras, license plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras, open WiFi sniffers, and other sensors. Drones' unique ability to hover hundreds or thousands of feet in the air - undetected, for many hours - enables constant, pervasive monitoring over a wide area. Without clear privacy rules, public and private use of drones can usher in an era of unparalleled physical surveillance. Without transparency requirements, citizens will not even have the basic right to know who owns the drone watching them from above. Congress, the FAA, industry bodies, and the American people all should play a role in ensuring that drones are used responsibly.


Congress missed a major opportunity to build civil liberties protections into H.R. 658. Instead, Congress fast-tracked the bill, ordering the FAA to unleash drones without even requesting a study or holding a hearing on the civil liberties implications of domestic drone deployment. Perhaps indignant hearings are inevitable, however, once hours of embarrassing drone footage hits YouTube. Ideally, privacy rules for civilian and government use of drones would be an explicit part of the baseline privacy legislation, though Congress should consider giving the FAA authority to build privacy into the drone licensure process.


As CDT argued in a previous blog post, the FAA should build transparency standards into its drone certification process. First, applicants for a license to use a drone should be required to submit a statement disclosing the surveillance capabilities of the drone and the intended use of information the d