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Privacy Perspectives | Why Privacy Pros Should Be Engaged With Drone Regs Related reading: The Case for Not Overregulating Drones

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While discussion of privacy issues and drones has become a hot topic in recent years, the reality of using drones to deliver packages, photograph weddings and monitor crops—not to mention the occasional schoolchild—has been no more than science fiction for the average consumer. When Amazon previewed its delivery drones just a year-and-a-half ago, many couldn’t imagine it was a serious effort.

Yet the technology is here, today and now.

In fact, to get comfortable with the technology, and as a friendly office mascot, I recently acquired a new DJI Phantom drone. I quickly set up my Phantom, connected its on-board camera to an app on my phone, and in an effort to take both privacy and safety seriously, read and watched a number of tutorials. Cognizant of the comprehensive ban on outdoor drone use in Washington, DC, I did a test-run inside my office and promptly crashed the poor drone into a door.

But last week, at a conference in rural Virginia, I was able to try flying the Phantom in the open, and quickly got a handle on zooming the machine hundreds of feet into the air while manipulating the on-board camera to see the world in a whole new way. I could imagine a near future where I could use my own drone to pick up my coffee or otherwise drop off my mail. Curiously, no one at the hotel I was staying at appeared to have any large apprehension to my flying in their midst. The hotel staff repeatedly noted how "cool" it was to see a drone hovering around outside. 

Eventually, one guest noticed the drone's camera. She asked whether it was on and filming her that very moment. When I assured her it wasn't, though there was no audio-visual cue to support my claim, she smiled and said, "So much for my privacy." Though my single drone received a warm reception, including from the event's photographer, I wondered whether that would change as these devices proliferate.

The economic and consumer benefits drones offer are exciting, but it is clear that the privacy discussion will be complicated. As drones get smaller, more sophisticated and have longer flight times, the technology will become a flash point for debates about what privacy expectations individuals can expect in public.

Perhaps, as I witnessed, further exposure will alleviate these fears, but at present, there remains considerable skepticism among the public about the broad commercial use of drones. 

One recent poll found that 43 percent of those surveyed were opposed to private drone operations with only 21 percent expressing support. Moreover, nearly three-fifths of respondents were specifically concerned that drones could be used in ways that would violate their privacy. Another recent study went so far as to caution that drone use alters public perception about information collection in such a way that public support decreases even for activities that would otherwise be considered acceptable. Prof. Ryan Calo has argued that drones may act as a privacy catalyst, providing a stark visual representation of the public's concerns about surveillance in a way that online cookies simply cannot

Seriously addressing privacy concerns will go a long way to ensuring the successful takeoff of the unmanned aircraft ecosystem. This may require a combination of technical and policy measures. Several proposals range from an effort by NASA to establish dedicated drone "air highways" to companies implementing "no fly zones" that restrict where drones may fly. One industry-led solution would allow individuals to not only limit where certain unmanned aircraft are allowed to fly, but also aims to offer customizable control over a homeowner's localized, immediate airspace.

Drone manufacturers are also using geofencing solutions that aim to ensure safety, as well as privacy. For example, DJI recently sought to establish an extensive geofence around Washington, DC, in response to a wayward drone that crashed onto the White House grounds. The Center for Democracy & Technology once proposed a type of technical "license plate," where the drone could broadcast an identifier that would allow folks to track what might be flying above them. Understanding how these technological efforts could interact with emerging best practices will be important.

Fortunately, the NTIA's upcoming multi-stakeholder effort may be poised to do just that.

Unlike prior efforts to establish binding codes of conduct for mobile apps and facial recognition, the NTIA's drone project is aimed at establishing best practices for a technology that remains largely prohibited by the FAA. The incentives may be aligned for industry and privacy advocates to come together. The Future of Privacy Forum’s recent comments to the NTIA stress the need to develop more elaborate transparency and accountability mechanisms for drone use. We hope these are areas where all sides can find common ground.

Companies should be clear what they're using drones for. Considering safety training and certification will be essential and independent efforts like the "Know Before You Fly" campaign already incorporate some privacy considerations. 

And this is an instance where we might be able to learn from Europe.

The EU, as well as Canada, are already far ahead of the U.S. with embracing domestic, commercial use of drones. Several regulators have explored how privacy by design could be applied to emerging drone technologies, and the European Data Protection Supervisor has discussed how drone operators could engage in privacy impact assessments. A recent study requested by the European Commission looked favorably upon the ability of existing European regulation and soft law measures to integrate innovative uses of drones in a privacy-friendly manner. The study called for more transparency and awareness-raising efforts by both industry and government, which are strategies that could be easily followed across the pond as well. 

There is much work to be done to determine how existing general privacy principles can be applied to a diverse array of different drones, and it would behoove privacy professionals to get engaged now.

Clearly, consumers, businesses and policymakers all need to have a voice in determining how domestic drones can and should take flight. Many companies have already committed themselves to considering these privacy challenges, and we are hopeful the upcoming NTIA effort can help everyone identify the procedures, policies, and potential technological tools to help industry address public concern and get drones in the sky in a privacy-friendly fashion. It will also be important to engage with the FAA, which is already looking at drones from a safety angle.

For the sake of my grounded Phantom, I hope a meeting of the minds can occur sooner rather than later.

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