Mailbox: Domestic Drones and Personal Privacy Revisited : NPR Public Editor A policy analyst proposes how to protect us from government (and private) eavesdropping as the feds prepare to issue rules on drone use—not in Pakistan but in the US. Plus: a selection from the many responses to a December post on an NPR drone story and the discovery of an older NPR story.
NPR logo Mailbox: Domestic Drones and Personal Privacy Revisited

Mailbox: Domestic Drones and Personal Privacy Revisited

A Predator B unmanned aircraft takes off in Arizona. The aircraft patrol the southern border of the United Sates. Gary Williams/Getty Images hide caption

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Gary Williams/Getty Images

A Predator B unmanned aircraft takes off in Arizona. The aircraft patrol the southern border of the United Sates.

Gary Williams/Getty Images

This blog isn't normally the place for a public policy debate, but as privacy is a media issue as much as anything, the letter excerpted below from Harley Geiger from the Center for Democracy & Technology—which advocates for Internet free speech and privacy protection—is worth discussion here. The letter picks up on a recent post of mine on Brian Naylor's NPR story on using drones inside the United States.

Glenn Greenwald of Salon had famously objected to the story. Geiger goes one step further by proposing immediate steps that can be taken to prevent the misuse of by law enforcement and others:

I am the advocate Brian Naylor interviewed for the drone story. I work on consumer privacy, health privacy, and surveillance issues at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT). I too disagree with Greenwald that Brian's segment gave short thrift to the privacy issues associated with drones. However, I think stories with greater emphasis on privacy are inevitable, especially as the FAA's proposed rules on drones draw near – supposedly the FAA will release rules authorizing domestic drone use this coming spring.

I believe that inadequate attention is being paid to what the FAA itself can do on domestic drone use. There are definitely compelling Fourth Amendment and societal problems with drone surveillance (i.e., law enforcement does not need a warrant to continuously monitor an entire town with a drone) but the FAA cannot solve these problems – only Congress and/or the judiciary can, but that could take years and their record on privacy is mixed at best. However, the FAA can and should independently impose some critical requirements on domestic drone use:

  • First, the FAA should require all applications for a domestic drone to include a privacy statement that describes whether the drone will collect information about individuals and, if so, how that information will be used and disclosed. Drone operators can amend their privacy statement, but overstepping the bounds of the privacy statement should be grounds for the FAA to revoke the drone license.
  • Second, the FAA should make drone applications and their accompanying privacy statements publicly available in a searchable format. There could be an exception to this requirement for national security, but not law enforcement.

Taken together, these two fundamental requirements would generally prohibit the secret use of drones and shed some light on how drones are being used. Given the seriousness of the privacy threat posed by drones, there's little reason why the FAA should fail to establish these basic rules. I go into more detail on drones and my privacy recommendations in my blog post:

Drones are just one of many emerging technologies that present serious privacy and civil liberties problems. It is past time for Congress to step in with strong baseline privacy legislation, and I hope Americans stand up for their privacy every chance they get.

Harley Geiger, Center for Democracy & Technology

The original post provoked a number of interesting responses and some heated debate. Here is a selection what I thought were some of the best:

John Carlton (Archtype) wrote:

I'm sorry Mr. Ombudsman, but it's a commercial for drone manufacturers when the reporter is helpfully suggesting domestic commercial uses for military aircraft.

To wit, we already have RFD tags and chips for tracking cattle. It's a thriving industry. We don't need more military contractors squeezing out legitimate private companies.

Or how about crop-dusting? Again, this is solution in search of a problem. There's no need for drones to be sold to ConAgra and Monsanto, so just stop already.

Search and Rescue missions? We already have well-equipped police aircraft that do this job perfectly well.

This was an infomercial for Drones Over America.

John VanLandingham (nobyline) wrote:

If an informative piece about the potential uses of drones is a "commercial," then drop every last one of your high-tech yarns or pieces about the development of new industries etc, for they might be "commercials" too. You can point to down sides to any development. If you wish to assign Brian Naylor to do a lengthy investigation of the drone industry, so be it. But as I got it (and darn it I missed his piece), his assignment was ONE aspect of a new technology. Salon magazine and the other critics are a bit too self-righteous. Fine, respond with fully documented pieces about the other aspects of the technology but don't shoot the messenger--he's doing what you asked. And by telling you what he did, you (critics and other readers) began to think "Hey, maybe this isn't such a good deal." But would that thought have occurred but for Naylor's piece. Maybe, maybe not.

Nate Bowman (NickErbacher) wrote:

You see that person sitting over there not turning purple?

That's me NOT holding my breath waiting for the impotent suggestion from the ombudsman that the privacy and other issues be covered to ever come to fruition.

He sounds like he means it.
But then, he's sounded like he's meant it each of the other times he's made similar suggestions.
And none of them have ever resulted in a follow-up.

While Naylor's story was broadcast on Dec. 5, it turns out that All Things Considered had done an earlier story in March on the same subject. Here it is if you are interested:

It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's A Drone! March 14, 2011

The U.S. military has been using drones — unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft — for years to conduct surveillance and launch attacks on isolated targets. And now homemade versions of these flying robots have become wildly popular, first with hobbyists and now with entrepreneurs.

But while the tiny civilian aircraft may have lots of potential, the government isn't quite sure how to deal with them. (Click the link to read more.)