Drones have a privacy problem. As more and more domestic drones take flight in the United States, more and more people are worried that these airborne cameras will be peeking in their windows and watching them drive around town — and rightfully so. Yet the federal agency overseeing the growing industry apparently doesn't think this is a pressing concern.
Privacy advocates have been on the Federal Aviation Administration's case for years; in 2012 the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and 100 other organisations and individuals sent the agency a petition about drones and privacy, asking it to "conduct a notice and comment rulemaking on the impact of privacy and civil liberties related to the use of drones in the United States." This would complement the FAA's current duties of writing the rules for the use of commercial drones, which are due out later this month.
A few days ago, the agency finally answered: No.
This is a frustrating outcome, but the government's behaviour makes some sense. Legally, the FAA must take the following three things into account when it receives a petition like EPIC's:
1) The immediacy of the safety or security concern
2) The priority of other issues the FAA must deal with
3) The resources [the FAA has] available to address these issues
In its reply to the petition, the FAA said quite clearly that privacy as it relates to drones "is not an immediate safety concern." (Conveniently, the agency didn't comment on whether drones and privacy present a security concern.)
You can imagine that the agency is more than a little bit caught up with trying to figure out how to keep all of these tiny aircraft from crashing into buildings and people and commercial airlines. That seems like a high priority item.
But privacy is also important! In fact, the FAA says in the same letter to privacy advocates that it will "consider [their] comments and arguments as part of" the larger rulemaking process. So the agency isn't exactly ignoring privacy. It's just ignoring it for now. And choosing, for better or worse, to prioritise safety instead. We'll see more in the next few weeks when the FAA finally releases a draft of the rules at the end of this year, which will almost certainly be very strict.
Again, this shouldn't be surprising. When you step back and think about it, privacy has never really been at the top of regulators' list of concerns. Since its establishment in 1958, this faction of the US Department of Transportation has been most focused on aviation safety, air traffic control, airports, and some space travel. The FAA may not even know where to start when it comes to assuring these flying robots aren't an invasion of American citizens' private lives. Indeed it already made it clear in a roadmap for drone regulation last year that it would be avoiding the issue for the foreseeable future.
None of this makes an FAA decision not to tackle drones and privacy OK. In fact, it makes the issue even more frustrating, because if the agency in charge of regulating drones is not going to protect privacy in its drone rulemaking, who will? Candidates include: Congress, Congress, and uhhhh Congress? It's totally unclear, and of course it is. Drones are new technology that raise issues we've never had to consider before. There's bound to be some bureaucratic confusion. But now would be a good time for President Obama to open his mouth and offer some direction. He's been good at that lately.