Commercial Drones and Privacy

What's happening?

The next four years will be crucial to our ability to develop and control automated technology—in particular, self-driving cars and commercial drones.


In August, new regulations came into effect to govern the use of commercial drones. These rules only apply to commercial drones with human pilots, as opposed to automated drone delivery systems like the one Amazon is developing.


    While these rules do limit commercial drone use in some ways, the regulations were largely seen as a victory for drone users. Previously, commercial operators needed a hard-to-get pilot's license. As the spokesman for DJI, a major drone company, explained, "it means that businesses and farmers and government agencies and academic researchers can put drones to work without having to get an airplane pilot’s license or follow other onerous rules." 


    These rules were issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is part of the Department of Transportation.


    Enter Elaine Chao, President Trump's newly confirmed Secretary of Transportation. Secretary Chao now has the power to make decisions about automated technology—including commercial drones—that will have enormous effects on the American economy and people's daily lives.

    Why is it important?

    It is not hyperbolic to say Secretary Chao's choices could change the course of history.


    If she regulates the fast-moving industry too strictly, she risks stifling a vital part of our country's future economy—and giving other countries a competitive advantage.


    If she deregulates or refuses to put parameters around new technologies, she could cause serious problems for personal privacy and transportation safety—not to mention leaving companies like Amazon without the regulations they feel they need to succeed


    One area the FAA did not cover and many are now looking to Secretary Chao to address as drones become more and more common: personal privacy.

    Debate it!

    Should we regulate the drone industry more strictly to protect privacy?


    We all benefit from smart regulation that protects the right to privacy and gives a growing industry the parameters it needs.


    Some states are making progress. As PBS' Jen Fifield explained, "a new law in Kansas makes it illegal to stalk with a drone. In Arizona, Louisiana and Utah, drone operators are now restricted from flying drones near police or firefighter activity. And in Oklahoma and Tennessee operators can’t fly drones near some buildings, such as power plants."


    We can disagree about the means by which to restrict the use of drones to protect personal privacy, but the idea that we would not regulate this issue at all—or rely on guidelines instead—is deeply misguided. As the ACLU's Chad Marlow put it, "to say, 'you can protect your privacy, but you have to live off the grid' — that’s not an acceptable resting point."


    The NTIA guidelines may ask drone users nicely not to collect information to make decisions about employment, credit, or healthcare eligibility without the subject's consent. But these guidelines have no teeth and companies know it. Only regulation to address this serious privacy concern with any legitimacy or ability to enforce it.


    The NTIA guidelines also include this good advice: "Don't harass people with your drone." We have laws about harassment when a person does it—but won't enforce those laws or make new ones when they do it with a drone? 


    We'll all be better off when we have sufficient regulation to enforce the right to privacy in the face of these new technologies.



    Any further regulation of drones in particular only limits the potential of an industry that can reshape and improve how we live, travel, and exchange goods.


    We already have laws that protect the elements of privacy that are important. As Matt Waite, professor and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab explained, "states already have laws in place that prohibit someone from intruding upon a place where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy."


    We are better served by guidelines like the ones the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issued in 2015. President Obama asked the NTIA to outline best practices for unmanned aircraft systems (drones) collecting "covered data"—data that can identify an individual person.


    These guidelines suggest that operators avoid using drones "to intentionally collect covered data where the operator knows the data subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy" or "for the specific purpose of persistent and continuous collection of covered data about individuals." The guidelines also suggest drones not be used to collect information to make decisions about employment, credit, or healthcare eligibility without the consent of the subject. 


    Guidelines are better because they set reasonable expectations without stifling the development and use of this important technology. As the NTIA said, "these guidelines provide the flexibility to evolve as the industry grows while ensuring a baseline understanding of ethical practices." Anything more would impede important industry growth—and be worse for all of us long-term.

    Learn more...

    1. The FAA's new regulations for commercial drones
      • [Summarized] When flying a commercial drone: 
        • You must be able to see it
        • You must have a "remote pilot airman certificate" (and you must be 16 years old to get one)
        • You must maintain a maximum groundspeed of 100 mph and a maximum altitude of 400 feet
        • You must use it during the day (or in the evening with proper anti-collision lighting)
    2. Vox on the major questions Secretary Chao now faces
      • "Amazon envisions a future where thousands of small vehicles are buzzing over our heads at any particular point in time. One of the big challenges with that vision is how to prevent them from running into each other... Amazon wants the FAA to require drones that fly above 200 feet to have automated collision avoidance and communication technology on board... The Obama FAA hasn’t endorsed these ideas yet... Which means this is an area where Secretary Chao could make a mark."
    3. The NTIA's guidelines for drone use and statement about their work
      • "The best practices agreed to by a diverse group of stakeholders—including privacy and consumer advocates, industry, news organizations and trade associations—represent an important step in building consumer trust, giving users the tools to innovate in this space in a manner that respects privacy, and providing accountability and transparency."
    4. PBS on how and why drones are raising privacy concerns
      • "Since 2013, 31 states have passed laws regulating drones, with 12 laws related to privacy protections from other residents, 21 laws imposing restrictions on law enforcement and 13 laws imposing criminal penalties on drone misuse, such as stalking, according to NCSL... At the same time, the number of drones in use is skyrocketing, especially for personal use. As of last month, there were about 459,400 registered drones for hobbyists and about 8,400 registered drones for non-hobbyists in the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s online database. That compares to 325,000 in February, when the FAA first released the data."