Civil Rights Groups Urge FAA to Test Drone Surveillance Capacities

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the process of selecting six test sites around the country where they can try out the integration of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) — more commonly known as drones — in U.S. airspace. Civil liberties groups are urging the FAA to use this test phase to also monitor drone surveillance capacities to better protect the public in the future.

In February 2012, Congress gave the FAA three years to integrate UAVs into the National Airspace System (NAS). In February 2013, the FAA initiated the application process for the creation of six tests sites across the country. With these sites, the agency expects “to learn how unmanned aircraft systems operate in different environments and how they will impact air traffic operations.”

To date, the FAA has received more than 50 test site proposals from 37 different states. With an industry that could be worth $90 billion in a decade, states have made it a priority to host a FAA test sites.

Drone Surveillance Capacities
Credit: FAA

Last week, the California assembly passed a bill that would require the governor to submit a proposal to the FAA for a test site before the May deadline.

Considering public concerns over the use of drones and the protection of privacy rights, most state legislatures are currently discussing laws that would regulate the use of drones. However, civil liberties advocates such as the ACLU, the Center for Technology and Democracy, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are pushing the FAA to take further steps.

Under the proposed privacy framework, the FAA already requires the future operators of a test site to respect certain privacy requirements. A drone site operator would need to have privacy policies that govern all activities at the site available to the public and it must have ways to receive and consider comments on these policies.

These requirements remain vague as the only guideline test site operators have is that the policies “should” be informed by Fair Information Practice Principles — a framework of privacy principles at the core of federal and state laws.

Civil liberties groups have sent proposals to the FAA encouraging the agency to go further. The ACLU, for example, would like the FAA to set some minimum privacy standards that all site operators would have to respect. The group would also like the FAA to create an oversight mechanism that would make sure these policies are enforced.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wants the FAA to use the testing period to analyze “how accurate [drones] surveillance systems are and test how much data those systems collect.” In its proposal, the organization recommends the use of fake cities to pursue these tests.

The purpose of the FAA mandate is to evaluate the consequences of drones flying in the U.S. airspace from a purely logistical standpoint: how to avoid crashes with other UAVs and other aerial vehicles and how to create safety codes that will make flight operations secure.

However, as suggested by civil liberties advocates, there is a unique opportunity to monitor drone surveillance capacities in the field. By following these suggestions, the FAA would have the means to inform the public on the reality of drone use and better prepare people for their introduction into the national airspace.