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Privacy battle against U.S. drone surveillance ramps up

Taylor Armerding | Feb. 4, 2013
Government and private ever more capable drones has prompted fear of 'a wholesale surveillance state,' and lawmakers are responding

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees the domestic deployment of the digital eyes in the sky known as drone aircraft, is suffering from a major blind spot: protection of personal privacy.

That message is now coming not just from privacy advocates but from both federal and state legislators, including Congressmen Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who recently filed a bill to require the FAA to strengthen privacy provisions governing drone surveillance.

The use of drones, more formally labeled unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), has expanded well beyond war zones. Their high-resolution, digital eyes are being used for surveillance in the U.S. with increasing frequency.

Estimates are that there will be 30,000 of them deployed domestically by 2020, by both commercial and government entities.

And the capabilities of those cameras combined with facial recognition technology and databases add up to "not just surveillance, but ubiquitous surveillance," said Bruce Schneier, author, blogger and chief security technology officer at BT. "Instead of 'follow that car,' it's 'follow every car.' And follow it for six months back."

USA Today reported recently that lawmakers are finally taking notice. "Congress and at least 10 state legislatures could consider bills this year that would limit the use of the camera-equipped, unmanned aircraft in the USA," it said.

Markey, now running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by recently confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry, filed a bill in December titled the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act (DAPTA) to require privacy provisions "relating to data collection and minimization, disclosure, warrant requirements for law enforcement, and enforcement measures in the licensing and operation of ... drones."

Markey and U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said in an earlier statement that it took them five months to get a response from the FAA on questions about privacy. And Markey said last Nov. 29 that the agency's answers "make it clear that privacy is a 'blind spot' in its oversight of non-military domestic drones. This is misguided and wrong."

Among still-unanswered questions, Markey said: "How [the FAA] 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."

Privacy advocates have been concerned about the proliferation of drones for some time. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request nearly two years ago, in April 2011, and then a lawsuit a year ago against the FAA's parent agency, the Department of Transportation, seeking information on drone licensing. It finally obtained several thousand pages of records this past December on hundreds of domestic drones.


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