EPIC.org: Challenging FAA’s Tone-Deafness on UAS ‘Privacy’

On December 2nd, Gizmodo.com posted an article, Why the FAA Isn’t Worried About Drones Invading Your Privacy Right Now. This article was triggered by a post the day before at EPIC.org, FAA Grounds Drone Privacy Safeguards. Here’s the background…

EPIC.org is the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an independent non-profit research center based in Washington, DC. According to their website ‘about EPIC page’, EPIC is all about fundamental democratic values. EPIC works to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and to promote the Public Voice in decisions concerning the future of the Internet. EPIC maintains two of the most popular privacy web sites in the world – epic.org and privacy.org.

Aviation activities are rapidly transitioning from manned vehicles (fixed-wing and helicopters) to unmanned aircraft systems (aka UAS, or ‘drones’). This transition can provide great benefits, such as reduced energy use and reduced air and noise pollution. But, this transition also has the potential to lead us to a new world where the skies become crowded with silent drones monitoring all our activities, and even being used to ‘take out’ arbitrarily defined threats. EPIC.org is one of the leading NGO’s working to ensure that the needs of the larger Public are being properly considered, during the development of these new technologies and regulations.

In early 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). This legislation was a big package, covering airport projects, expansion of NextGen technologies, etc. It also directed FAA to “develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system,” providing for this integration “as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.”

In the weeks following President Obama’s signing of FMRA, a petition was filed with FAA, asking the agency to “”conduct a notice and comment rulemaking on the impact of privacy and civil liberties related to the use of drones in the United States.” EPIC was joined by over 100 other organizations, experts, and members of the public in presenting the petition.

FAA already had a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the works, and it was published in the Federal Register on March 9, 2012. Given the short notice, it was reasonable that FAA did not include the privacy issues in this NPRM. Instead, FAA added a solicitation for privacy-issue comments to a later NPRM, published in February 2013. Consequently, the entire issue of drone privacy impacts has been inadequately addressed by FAA. So, a full 31-months after the February 2012 petition, FAA finally got around to sending a weak ‘reply’ letter to EPIC.org.

How can we do Better?

All of this suggests we would be far better served, if FAA would relinquish regulatory authority over the low-altitude airspace. A more flexible – and more responsive – authority should be handling low-altitude drone regulations … perhaps even local or state officials. And, their regulations should be required to conform with reasonable (and legislated) privacy protections.

Here is a chronology with links to the documents:

2/24/12 EPIC.org’s Petition, filed with FAA
 3/8/12 FAA’s NPRM, requesting comments for the UAS Test Sites
5/8/12 EPIC.org comments, filed with FAA’s NPRM
 2/22/13  FAA’s NPRM, presenting the process by which FAA will select UAS Test Sites, and also soliciting comments about UAS Test Site privacy concerns
 4/23/13  EPIC.org comments submitted to NPRM
 11/14/13  FAA’s final draft of Privacy Requirements for UAS Test Site Program
 11/26/14  FAA’s letter to EPIC.org, responding to the Petition (31-months later! … and signed by Lirio Liu, recently promoted to Director, Office of Rulemaking)

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