The Proposed Drone Privacy Law

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Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act

Today I recieved the newsletter of Representative Peter Welch. He listed a few items, but the one that caught my eye was his headline: "Protecting your right to privacy from domestic drones".

As matters of privacy interest me, I looked at the bill text and discussed it with a few friends. The bill can be summarized rather simply, or if you prefer the official summary you can read congress's here. In essence, besides the exceptions of "imminent danger" or "a high risk of an imminent terrorist attack by a specific individual or organization, according to the Secretary of Homeland Security", the government would be required to release Data collection statements as well as attempt to minimization the amount of data they collect that isn't pertinent to the task at hand.

In simplest terms, transparency of drone surveillance by the US government for its citizens. In pessimistic terms, a piece of legislation that will not make it into law. According to the govtrack website the bill has a 1% chance of being enacted. The analysis is based on historical data of other bills, and the key points that make this bill unlikely to pass are as follows:

In my mind there's a much larger reason why the bill has such a low chance to pass. The government enjoys having an unprecedented amount of ability in surveillance tactics and doesn't want to give it up. After all, this type of thing can be used for good. However, they're not always effective

"In an audit of the fleet’s operations during fiscal 2013, the inspector general calculated that it cost $12,255 per flight hour to operate the drones, five times as much as Customs and Border Protection had estimated.
...
As evidence, the report cited statistics showing that of the 120,939 illegal border crossers apprehended in Arizona during 2013, fewer than 2 percent were caught with the help of drones providing aerial surveillance."

As is common, privacy law lags behind (some might say a lag of about 13 years and 5 month*) new methods of intelligence. Right now, there are no explicit privacy protections or public transparency measures with respect to UAV in written law. So this bill would be a milestone. This bill compliments the protection of privacy and the general rights of the 4th amendment quite well:

"A governmental entity (as defined in section 2711 of title 18, United States Code) may not use an unmanned aircraft system or request information or data collected by another person using an unmanned aircraft system for protective activities, or for law enforcement or intelligence purposes, except pursuant to a warrant"

In addition, section 4d & 4e allows a citizen to sue upon violations of the bill and their privacy rights. This means that if the bill passed, if you had evidence of being spied upon by government drones unlawfully, you could sue the government and win.

Hobbyists of drones might be a little alarmed at the thought of needing a license and reporting any data collection they might do. However, this version of the bill (unlike 2013's) includes the Model aircraft provision in Section 5.

"Nothing in this Act may be construed to apply to model aircraft (as defined in section 336(c) of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law 112–95; 49 U.S.C. 40101 note))."

In other words, if you're a hobbyist and just flying your little drone around to take a few pictures for fun. You're ok. If you're selling video or images taken by your drone, you might want to read this. For an official source, check the faa. The legislature's need for license to fly your drone for commercial use isn't new, and only the transparency and data minimization/collection pieces of the bill offer annoyances to hobbyists.

If you ask me though, a little annoyance to a few hobbyists who are looking to monetize their drone data is worth the trouble if it helps to keep citizen's private lives private; not to mention what a victory for this bill would represent to all of the disgruntled citizens who have grown disenfranchised with their own government.

* Today is March 26th, do the math.

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