Amazon made quite a splash last December when it announced “Prime Air,” a project to deliver Amazon orders by drone, as a complement to the familiar UPS and FedEx delivery trucks. The accompanying video—depicting a cute drone with an Amazon logo picking up a package at an Amazon warehouse and delivering it to happy homeowners—quickly went viral.

Some dismissed Prime Air as a clever publicity stunt. But the prospect of hordes of commercial drones buzzing through our neighborhoods and down our city streets is being taken quite seriously, along with the legal consequences—including the potential impact on privacy.

Until recently, there was little concern that commercial drone technology might outrun the legal framework for dealing with it. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with broad authority over both manned and unmanned aircraft, has rarely issued certifications for commercial drones. But the FAA now has a mandate to open national airspace to drones. And in a sign that the future may arrive sooner than expected, last month an administrative law judge reversed the FAA’s imposition of a $10,000 fine against an aerial videographer for using a drone to shoot a promotional video, saying the FAA had exceeded its authority under existing rules. The FAA is appealing the decision.

What might the commercial drone future look like? Overseas markets provide a clue. In Japan and South Korea, drones are used to spray crops with fertilizers and pesticides. In Australia, television networks use drones to cover cricket matches—and drones made possible breathtaking shots of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In the UK, energy companies use drones to inspect oil platforms, and real estate agents use them to video properties for sale. In Germany, Deutsche Post DHL is testing a “Paketkopter” drone to deliver small packages to hard-to-reach locations. Various aid organizations are looking into having medicines and other critical goods delivered by drone around the globe.

In the past few months, there’s been a flurry of activity in the U.S. to prepare for the regulation of commercial drones, including addressing potential threats to privacy rights. A number of players are staking out positions:

The Federal Aviation Administration

The FAA’s mission to “promote safe flight of civil aircraft” encompasses drone use. In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the FAA to develop a comprehensive plan to implement drones into civil commerce by 2015—a deadline the FAA is unlikely to achieve. However, the FAA is moving ahead with fulfilling one key mandate in the 2012 legislation: establishing a test-site program. At the end of last year, the FAA announced that six applicants from around the country had been selected to operate drone test sites, from the University of Alaska to New York’s Griffiss International Airport.

Privacy issues regarding the FAA’s test-site program are being addressed head on. After issuing a public notice and soliciting comments, the FAA announced privacy requirements for the test sites, including that each test site operator:

  • Have privacy policies governing all activities conducted at the test site, make the policies publicly available and conduct annual reviews to ensure compliance;
  • Comply with all applicable privacy laws, and
  • Have a written plan for the operator’s use and retention of data collected by drones operating at the test site.

Not surprisingly, the FAA privacy requirements haven’t satisfied everyone. Criticisms have ranged from “the FAA should focus on its safety mission and keep its nose out of privacy matters” to “the FAA should require every test-site operator to conduct a full privacy impact assessment and make all data collected publicly available.” But privacy advocates can take comfort in the fact that the FAA has recognized privacy as a “regulatory driver” of its supervisory role regarding drones.


One of the staunchest advocates of strict privacy rules governing drone flights is Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who co-chairs a bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus. Proclaiming that privacy legislation is necessary to “prevent flying robots from becoming spying robots,” Markey last year introduced the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2013, currently with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. This legislation would:

  • Require that the U.S. Government carry out a study to identify any potential threats to privacy protections posed by the integration of drones into the national airspace system;
  • Ban the FAA from issuing drone permits unless the license application includes a “data collection statement” explaining what kind of data will be collected, how the data will be used, whether the data will be sold to third parties and the period for which the data will be retained;
  • Require the FAA to create a publicly available website that lists all approved licenses and includes the data collection statements, any data security breaches suffered by a licensee and the times and locations of drone flights, and
  • Allow enforcement of drone privacy requirements by the Federal Trade Commission, states and individuals.

Additional data minimization rules would apply in the case of drones operated by law enforcement agencies.


When it comes to regulating drone use, states are torn. On the one hand, they want to attract the burgeoning drone industry to their districts. On the other hand, they want to protect the privacy of their residents. The result is a hodgepodge of legislation, resolutions and proposals, with more than 35 states considering drone legislation this year.

Industry Advocacy and Public Interest Groups

For the most part, interest organizations are taking predictable positions. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a leading industry trade group, is insisting that privacy rules applicable to drones should be “platform-neutral,” treating manned and unmanned aircraft the same. Chief Executive of the Aerospace Industries Association and former FAA administrator Marion Blakey recently opined that “there's been too much rhetoric about privacy concerns.” The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), by contrast, has taken the position that drones pose a substantial threat to privacy because they “are designed to undertake constant, persistent surveillance to a degree that former methods of aerial surveillance were unable to achieve.” EPIC has started a petition addressed at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection to establish privacy regulations on the use of unmanned drones, signed by 25 organizations at the time of this writing, including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the Government Accountability Project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), while similarly favoring strong privacy protections regarding drones, also emphasizes the importance of protecting First Amendment values, e.g., by not unduly restricting journalistic use of drones.

Once the dust settles between the warring factions in the drone privacy debate, what should the privacy protections look like, in particular, for commercial drones? The Fair Information Practice Principles provide a good touchstone, as emphasized by both the CDT and the ACLU:

  • Transparency: Require drone operators to create and make publicly available a data collection policy, along the lines of the Markey legislation.
  • Individual/Community Participation: Allow communities to be involved in drone regulation, and permit residents to opt out of having their property subject to surveillance or their personal information collected.
  • Purpose Specification and Use Limitations: Ensure that commercial drones are used only for specific, publicly announced purposes and data collection is limited to the fulfillment of those purposes.
  • Data Quality and Integrity: Require drone operators to ensure the accuracy of data collected, and allow individuals access to—and the opportunity to correct—personal data collected by drones.
  • Security: Ensure that drone-collected data is protected from unauthorized access or disclosure, that communications between drones and ground stations are secure and that certain sensitive communications are encrypted.
  • Accountability and Auditing: Require training of commercial drone operators in compliance with privacy and security requirements, subject to compliance audits by the FAA or another designated agency.

With appropriate privacy safeguards in place, if those Amazon drones do eventually take to the skies, at least we can be reasonably confident they’re minding their own business.

Written By



If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

Latin America Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from Latin America

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Get more News »

IAPP Communities

Meet locally with privacy pros, dive deep into specialized topics or connect over common interests. Find your Community in KnowledgeNet Chapters, Sections and Affinity Groups.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find a KnowledgeNet Chapter Near You

Talk privacy and network with local members at IAPP KnowledgeNet Chapter meetings, taking place worldwide.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

The Privacy Core™ Library Has Evolved

Privacy Core™ e-learning essentials just expanded to include seven new units for marketers. Keep your data safe and your staff in the know!

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

Upcoming Web Conferences

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Team

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Let’s Get You DPO Ready

There’s no better time to train than right now! We have all the resources you need to meet the challenges of the GDPR.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

FIP Designation

Recognizing the advanced knowledge and issue-spotting skills a privacy pro must attain in today’s complex world of data privacy.

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.


The IAPP’S CIPP/E and CIPM are the ANSI/ISO-accredited, industry-recognized combination for DPO readiness. Learn more today.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

Are You Ready for the GDPR?

Check out the IAPP's EU Data Protection Reform page for all the tools and resources you need.

IAPP-OneTrust PIA Platform

New U.S. Government Agency privacy impact assessments - free to IAPP members!

IAPP Communities

Meet locally with privacy pros, dive deep into specialized topics or connect over common interests. Find your Community in KnowledgeNet Chapters, Sections and Affinity Groups.

Privacy Vendor List

Find a privacy vendor to meet your needs with our filterable list of global service providers.

More Resources »

Europe Data Protection Intensive 2017

The Intensive is sold out! But cancellations do happen—so hurry and get on the wait list in case more seats become available.

Global Privacy Summit 2017

The world’s premier privacy conference returns with the sharpest minds, unparalleled programs and preeminent networking opportunities.

Canada Privacy Symposium 2017

The Symposium returns to Toronto this spring and registration has opened! Take advantage of Early Bird rates and join your fellow privacy pros for another stellar program.

The Privacy Bar Section Forum 2017

The Privacy Bar Section Forum returns to Washington, DC April 21, delivering renowned keynote speakers and a distinguished panel of legal and privacy experts.

Asia Privacy Forum 2017

The Forum returns to Singapore for exclusive networking and intensive education on data protection trends and challenges in the Asia Pacific region. Call for Speakers open!

Privacy. Security. Risk. 2017

This year, we're bringing P.S.R. to San Diego. The Call for Speakers is now open. Submit today and be a part of something big! Submission deadline: February 26.

Europe Data Protection Congress 2017

European policy debate, multi-level strategic thinking and thought-provoking discussion. The Call for Speakers is open until March 19.

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»