Privacy laws urgently need to be updated to protect the public from information-gathering by the thousands of civilian drones expected to be flying in U.S. skies in the next decade or so, legal experts told a Senate panel Wednesday.
A budding commercial drone industry is poised to put mostly small, unmanned aircraft to countless uses, from monitoring crops to acting as lookouts for police SWAT teams, but federal and state privacy laws have been outpaced by advances in drone technology, experts said at a Senate hearing.
Current privacy protections from aerial surveillance are based on court decisions from the 1980s, the Judiciary Committee was told, before the widespread drone use was anticipated. In general, manned helicopters and planes already have the potential to do the same kinds of surveillance and intrusive information gathering as drones, but drones can be flown more cheaply, for longer periods of time and at less risk to human life. That makes it likely that surveillance and information-gathering will become much more widespread, legal experts said.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently predicted about 7,500 civilian drones will be in use within five years after the agency grants them greater access to U.S. skies. Congress has directed the FAA to provide drones with widespread access to domestic airspace by 2015, but the agency is behind in its development of safety regulations and isn't expected to meet that deadline.
If Americans' privacy concerns aren't addressed first, the benefits of potentially "transformative" drone technology may not be realized, Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor, told the Judiciary Committee.
It's in "everyone's interest to update the law even if only to provide the industry with the kind of bright lines its need to develop this technology," said Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group.
But Calo and Stepanovich were divided on whether Congress should update federal privacy laws to set a national standard, or whether the responsibility should be left to state lawmakers to craft their own solutions. Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would, among other things, require warrants before drones could be used for surveillance.
Calo said he is concerned that some of the congressional legislation isn't written broadly enough to cover other types of technology, like robots that can walk up walls.
There is also virtue in allowing states to experiment with their own laws, he said. A variety of drone-related bills have been introduced this year in more than 30 state legislatures.