Domestic UAVs provoke privacy concerns among panelists

Unmanned aerial vehicles have the potential to radically alter public spaces, said panelists during a Jan. 15 Electronic Privacy Information Center event in Washington, D.C.

UAVs "are not simply airplanes with cameras," said Amie Stepanovich, an associate litigation counsel with EPIC. Drones are designed with surveillance in mind and are equipped sophisticated sensors, she said. They differ from other aerial platforms in their size and cost to operate – both significantly less than manned rotor- or fixed wing- aircraft – and they can go undetected by their targets in urban and rural environments. Manufacturers are working on increasing UAVs' hover time. The Federal Aviation Administration has estimated there could be as many as 30,000 UAVs in the national airspace by 2020.

UAVs equipped with sensors such as facial recognition technology creates the possibility of continuous and ongoing biometric surveillance, said Laura Donohue, an associate professor of law at Georgetown Law School. Biometrics until now have mostly been collected on an individual basis, such as through fingerprinting after arrest or through biometric identification for access control. UAVs with biometric sensors are "fundamentally different from the biometrics we've previously had…it changes how we think about public space," she said.

Current law would make a Fourth Amendment challenge to UAV surveillance very difficult, said Orin Kerr, a Georgetown Law School professor.

"As long as its surveillance from public airspace, there is no Fourth Amendment issues at all, because what occurs in in public, even if someone is on their own private land," he said.

It's possible that judges might accept an argument that long-term surveillance collectively amounts to a search requiring privacy safeguards, but so far "It's pretty much an uphill battle" to assert Fourth Amendment protections in a public space, he added.

For more:
- go to an EPIC webpage with information about the event and the privacy implications of UAVs

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