Markey, Barton: Privacy Protections, Transparency a "Blind Spot" in FAA Oversight of Non-Military Domestic Drones

Press Release

By:  Ed Markey
Date: Nov. 29, 2012
Location: Washington, DC

With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimating that as many as 30,000 drones could be flying in U.S. skies by the year 2020, Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) today released a response from the FAA to their query about the potential privacy implications of non-military drone use. In its response to the lawmakers, FAA "recognizes that there are privacy concerns" related to drone operations, but it then explains that information about domestic use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) -- commonly called drones -- is mostly unavailable to the public except through time-consuming and cumbersome Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. When asked by the lawmakers about FAA plans to mandate sufficient privacy protections and public transparency requirements as part of the licensing process under the recently-passed FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the agency provides no information about transparency measures for drone licensing, nor any details about whether the agency will require operators to detail what information will be collected by drones, and how data collected will be handled, stored or discarded. The FAA's response is also silent on whether it will determine whether an entity applying to operate a drone will properly address privacy concerns or whether the agency plans to work with stakeholders on privacy and transparency to implement the new law.

"The FAA's response makes clear that privacy is a "blind spot' in its oversight of non-military domestic drones. This is misguided and wrong," said Rep. Markey.

"FAA does not appear to be prioritizing privacy and transparency measures in its plan to integrate nonmilitary drones into U.S. airspace. While there are benefits to using drones to gather information for law enforcement and appropriate research purposes, drones shouldn't be used to gather private information on regular Americans. We have rules of the road for vehicles, and now we need rules of the skies for drones. I urge the FAA to promptly respond to basic questions that remain unanswered: how it plans to notify the public about where and when drones will be used, who will operate the drones, what data will be collected, how will the data be used, how long will the data be retained, and who will have access to the data. Until these questions are answered, we cannot ensure the privacy rights of Americans will be protected by these new "eyes in the skies'," said Rep. Markey.

"It took the FAA five months to answer seven questions," said Rep. Barton. "I wish I could say the responses were worth the wait, but it was clear the agency isn't focusing enough on privacy. Drones are a large part of the future of surveillance and security in our nation, but this shouldn't come at the cost of privacy. It is important that we act now in allowing for the best possible transition into governmental and commercial use. As the FAA continues their conversations with other government agencies and those in the industry, I hope that they will focus more on privacy so we can make sure that peoples' rights aren't violated."

As state and local governments, businesses, and private individuals increasingly look to use drones in U.S. airspace, in February, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which requires the FAA to fully integrate government, commercial, and recreational drones into U.S. airspace by October 2015. Many drones are designed to carry surveillance equipment, including video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar, and wireless network detectors, raising questions about how the privacy of individuals will be safeguarded and how the public will be informed about drone use, whether by law enforcement, commercial enterprises, or private individuals.

Reps. Markey and Barton have been the Congressional leaders on providing privacy protections for personal consumer information. The lawmakers have investigated the data privacy and security practices of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, College Board, Groupon, Microsoft, the four major wireless carriers, and the Social Security Administration, among other entities.