CIVIL LIBERTIES, REMOTE SPYING AND THE DRONE LOBBY: Opening US Domestic Airspace to Unmanned Drones
April 25, 2012
The repercussions of the drone lobby’s success in forcing opening US domestic airspace to unmanned drones by 2015 are beginning to be felt across the US as civil liberties groups and politicians wake up to the implications for safety and privacy.
An article on the Public Intelligence website asks the basic questions “Is it even logistically possible to operate thousands of pilot-less aircraft in domestic airspace?” The authors examine two basic practical problems with unmanned drones. Firstly how they tend to become “zombies” by losing their wireless data-link to the remote operator – and then crashing. And secondly how without ‘sense and avoid’ capability drones are unable to avoid other aircraft and cause mid-air collisions. In both cases the more drones that fly – and the FAA predict up to 30,000 drones will be flying in the US by the end of the decade – the more incidents of lost data links and mid-air collisions there will be.
While safety is rightly the primary concern, civil liberties issues are also seriously affected by the new legislation. Last week the co-chairs of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, Ed Markey & Joe Barton, wrote an open letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pointing out the “potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protection” and requesting information as to how the FAA were to address privacy concerns.
In particular the pair want to know
What privacy protections and public transparency requirements has the FAA built into its current temporary licensing process for drones used in U.S. airspace?
Is the public notified about where and when drones are used, who operates them, what data are collected, how are the data used, how long are they retained, and who has access to that data?
How does the FAA plan to ensure that drone activities under the new law are transparent and individual privacy rights are protected?
How will the FAA determine whether an entity applying to operate a drone will properly address these privacy concerns.”