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Perspective: Privacy concerns could keep Amazon delivery drones grounded

Jaikumar Vijayan | Dec. 9, 2013
Several lawmakers are already calling for stringent privacy protections, and others are sure to follow

In February, Charlottesville, Va. became the first city in the U.S. to ban drones from its airspace "to the extent compatible with federal law." The resolution prohibits city agencies from buying, leasing, borrowing or testing drones and includes a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine for up to $10,000 for violators.

There's no telling how long it could take for Amazon's Prime Air service to take off amid the criticism and legal barriers.

For one thing, Amazon has to get FAA approval before it can really move forward with its plan to use 8-propeller "octocopter" delivery drones to deliver packages weighing less than 5 pounds to customers living within 10 miles of the company's fulfillment centers.

The FAA itself has pointed to numerous security, privacy, procedural and operational challenges that industry will need to overcome before commercial drones can be licensed in really significant numbers.

For instance, the FAA wants standards in place to ensure that unmanned aircraft are capable of sensing and avoiding other aircraft before it issues licenses for commercial drone use.

The FAA also wants standards created for vetting drone operators and for ensuring the systems cannot be hacked remotely.

Bezos' plans for drone delivery is sure to prompt even shriller calls for security and privacy protections, especially because other companies are sure to follow suit.

The usual examples of private drone use trotted out by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade group and others involves relatively tame situations like crop dusting or the showing of properties by real estate agents.

The fact that a company the size of Amazon is considering using drones to deliver products is sure to cause many to take another look at privacy implications of such activities.

So far, privacy rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center haven't said anything about Amazon's plans. But it's a sure bet that they will closely scrutinize the privacy implications sooner rather than later.

Bezos' ambitious plan may eventually fly. But not unless it can first overcome multiple privacy, security and policy obstacles.


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