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.

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  1. EGCC is one of 30 Ohio community colleges and universities selected as sites for terrorism training under the Ohio Homeland Security Training Alliance.

    Wait -- they're training terrorists?

    1. Well, you gotta make sure you've got a steady stream of terrorists in order to justify the billions spent fighting them, right? It's all very Keynesian. Digging holes and filling them up.

      1. Gotta have some false flag ops ready to go to justify your next round of liberty reduction.

  2. Sure are a lot of drones. Heard about underwater drones last week. What's next, land drones?

    [Scene: A New York apartment. Someone knocks on the door.]
    Woman: [not opening the door] Yes?
    Voice: (mumbling) Mrs. Arlsburgerhhh?
    Woman: Who?
    Voice: (mumbling) Mrs. Johannesburrrr?
    Woman: Who is it?
    Voice: [pause] Flowers.
    Woman: Flowers for whom?
    Voice: [long pause] Plumber, ma'am.
    Woman: I don't need a plumber. You're that clever drone, aren't you?
    Voice: [pause] Candygram.
    Woman: Candygram, my foot. You get out of here before I call the police. You're the Landdrone, and you know it.
    Voice: Wait. I-I'm only a Roomba, ma'am.
    Woman: A Roomba? Well. . .okay. [opens door]
    [Huge drone lunges through open door, chomps down on woman's head, and drags her out of the apartment, all while the Jaws attack music is playing.]

    1. Back when SNL was funny.

      1. They had some Python influence back then, which helped.

        1. What, you don't like the beat the joke until it is dead, Dead, DEAD approach they have now?

          1. Python did that on a per episode and per movie basis (with the possibility that it really did get funny the more pathetic it became), SNL likes to do it over the entire season.

            1. Like the "It's the Mind" skit. Which was great.

      2. Parents let me stay up and watch it even in the first season when I was around eight. Still remember dad laughing at the Gay Berets skit. 82nd Airborne vet, so it fed into his sense of rivalry.

    2. That could be a cop. The cop has no obligation to announce he's a cop (according to Dunphy) and can even lie for 'tactical advantage'.

  3. "No, no... these aren't red light camera emplacements, we are just studying traffic patterns." -- "We'll never pull you over for not wearing a seatbelt, only cite you if we pull you over and you aren't wearing one." -- Cigarettes, MADD, BAFTE, food restrictions...


    1. But you said this would only hurt a little?!

  4. 'If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen'... -- President Barack H Obama.

    I wonder if and when he catches that domestic terrorist John Galt, Obama is going to send him to Gitmo to be tortured or just drone bomb the Gulch.

    1. In one sense he is correct. The government has made bootstrapping damn near impossible.

  5. Stupid question, but wouldn't the 4th say that you can't fly over peoples property and act on anything you see without a warrant? On the street, the Nazgul says that your expectation of privacy is lower than in your own home. But in this case, the lower expectation shouldn't be a factor.

    1. 400 ft and up doesn't constitute a search. Thanks, Scalia.

      1. From 400 feet they can diagnose your hemorrhoids. In about 5 years, they should be able to do a spectral analysis of your scat from that range.

        1. I am worried about the satelites how do I now they are not spying on me. How do I now if they are armed.

  6. Will we see new (and probably subsidized) community college "Learn to become a drone pilot" programs?

    Yes. Any other questions?

  7. I actually like the carbon fiber rotor housings on the one pictured.

  8. I have been flying drones for the past 4 months or so.

    It takes a good deal of technical knowledge and practice to assemble a drone and fly it.

    ??The imagery from this perspective can be quite unique, I look forward to seeing where "flying" cameras will go as technology processes.??

    Here are some videos I have made with my drone:??

  9. It appears that the journalist didn't do his homework. The FAAs mission is to "provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world". Their mandate is to promote aviation and provide a safe and efficient airspace system. Privacy is completely out of the scope of the FAA.

    In the history of the administration they have not enacted a single regulation regarding privacy, even tho the majority of these surveillance payloads that people worry about have been tested and flown in manned aircraft for decades. Companies like Urban Robotics have extremely high resolution and synthetic aperture radar surveillance payloads and they're all used on manned aircraft, not UAV/UAS. The FAA also doesn't have the ability to regulate all of the private companies and corporations, in terms of privacy concerns, that are looking to to purchase drones.

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