Existing privacy law doesn't cover domestic UAV surveillance


Existing privacy law doesn't cover unmanned aerial vehicle surveillance, witnesses said during a March 20 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Privacy law in the United States tends to be targeted, and as a result "we don't believe that there are actually any federal statutes that would provide limits on drone surveillance," said Aime Stepanovich, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

That lack of law matters because UAVs will be able to do more surveillance than is currently possible with technology widely in use today. "They are cheaper to fly, cheaper to buy, cheaper to maintain" than manned aircraft, she added.

Benjamin Miller, the unmanned aircraft program manager for the Mesa County, Colo. sheriff's office--one of the few jurisdictions today with a Federal Aviation Administration permit to fly UAVs--told the committee that "unmanned aircraft can complete 30 percent of the missions of manned aviation for 2 percent of the cost."

Persistent surveillance from long-duration flights change that cost calculation, Miller noted--but another witness, Ryan Calo, a University of Washington assistant law professor, said that decreasing costs for long-duration UAV flights could increase its frequency.

Asked if persistent hovering above private property might violate the expectation of privacy of people on the ground, Calo said there is not necessarily a distinction between that and helicopter surveillance. The Supreme Court in the 1989 case Florida v. Riley ruled that a police helicopter conducting surveillance of private property from an altitude of 400 feet was in navigable airspace open to any member of the public; because of that and because the helicopter didn't interfere with Michael Riley's use of his property, the court majority said the police didn't need to obtain a warrant before conducting the surveillance.

Were a UAV to fly "very close to your house, you could argue trespass," Calo said.

He also brought up the possibility that UAVs that carry chemical sniffers could be totally unencumbered by privacy protections, "given that they're only looking for evidence of illegal activity."

Following passage of a 2012 reauthorization bill, the FAA has worked to streamline procedures for integrating public agency UAVs into the national airspace. In a March 2013 forecast (.pdf), it predicted that roughly 7,500 commercial small UAVs could be in operation by the end of the next 5 years.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimonies and webcast available)

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