Drone Records Gush from FAA Spigot, But Privacy Issues Not a Priority


The Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration over drone records bore fruit Friday and lots of it. The EFF reports receiving thousands of documents connected to 125 certificates to authorize the use of drones by agencies big and small across the United States. EFF has posted .zip files containing documents from some of the agencies for public review (some of the files would not open, though).

So named after the inventors, Christine and Zenon Dragan. (That was not a joke)

EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch blogged Friday that the foundation hadn't had the chance yet to really delve into the records documents but said there are still a lot of privacy questions about the use of drones. Indeed, after looking over documents by several agencies requesting certification for drone use, I'm not seeing any sort of documented discussion about privacy issues at all. There are maps documenting the flight areas for each drone, but that information is provided for safety and logistics purposes, not as a disclosure indicating limits of surveillance intentions. The documents show a lot of planning on training, safe use, and dealing with emergencies, but very little discussion of privacy.

To be fair, privacy isn't necessarily relevant for all the agencies because their uses are in very limited areas. A couple of the agencies are only using them at airports or open spaces for training a future generation of drone pilots. The University of Florida asked to use small drones to conduct bird population studies over wildlife sanctuaries, where the use of larger planes is forbidden by federal law.

But for law enforcement agencies, even if the stated purpose of their drone use is limited, their maps are not. The Seattle Police Department has authorization to use drones. Here's their summary of planned use:

The objective of our program is to create a higher standard of safety for members of our community by utilizing the Draganflyer [sic] X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in support of numerous Law Enforcement related functions which could include but are not limited to:

1) Crash site related to interstate transport of hazardous materials
2) Crash site related to railroad transport of hazardous materials
3) Search & Rescue operations
4) Tactical support of Law Enforcement operations

That fourth example seems like it could be a bit of a concern, privacy-wise.  I did not see any documentation indicating any further explanation of the limits of what this support might be.

Not all the requests were approved. The police department of Ogden City, Utah, (pop: 82,000) requested authorization to use a blimp-style drone to monitor for crime:

Ogden City Police seeks nocturnal surveillance of potential high-crime areas of Ogden, UT.  Pursuant to this, Ogden Police has partnered with the Utah Center for Aeronautical Innovation and Design (UCAID) at Weber State University to design and supply a lighter-than-air vehicle to be known as VIPAR (Vertical Integrated Patrol And Reconnaissance), which will be equipped with low-light camera(s) and used to patrol a limited area of the city at night time. 

Ogden City's crime, such as it is, has dropped significantly since 1999. In 2010 it registered one whole murder and 110 robberies. The FAA rejected the request not because it was ridiculous, intrusive and unnecessary, but due to safety concerns over the monitoring of the drone's operations at night. And note the partnership between the police and Weber State University.

 Here's how Eastern Gateway Community College describes their program:

The Eastern Gateway Community College (EGCC) intends to provide training in the operation of UAS including the use and integration of UAS payload systems as a safe and effective tool for law enforcement, emergency responders and other government agencies.

EGCC is one of 30 Ohio community colleges and universities selected as sites for terrorism training under the Ohio Homeland Security Training Alliance. The EGCC UAS training program will be included as a course offered to emergency service professionals.

The EGCC UAS program will provide emergency service professionals access to standardized training which will include simulated UAS operations, scenario based flight training and best practices and procedures. As Emergency service administrators become more familiar with UAS applications, they will have access to relevant and practical training, reducing the need of individual COA requests.

This reads a lot like the green energy training programs that popped up at community colleges following President Barack Obama and the Department of Energy's renewable power subsidy efforts. Will we see new (and probably subsidized) community college "Learn to become a drone pilot" programs?

More from Reason on drones.