U.S. drones flying above the homeland aren't stopped by any explicit privacy protections as they watch people below for hours. That could change with a bill requiring drone operators to explain exactly what they intend to do with their tireless robotic swarms.
The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, introduced by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., requests a U.S. government study of possible drone threats to the privacy rights of Americans, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Drones operated by the U.S. military, law enforcement agencies and universities already have taken to the skies above places ranging from Virginia Beach to western U.S. highways.
"Federal standards for informing the public and protecting individual privacy with respect to unmanned aircraft systems are needed," Markey's bill states.
Military drones commonly prowl U.S. skies during training flights, which can involve selecting cars being driven along the highway for practicing tracking techniques. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies and police departments have shown strong interest in using drones to track drug-related activities, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
If the bill were passed, the FAA would require statements from drone operators explaining how they will restrict surveillance and data collection to avoid overstepping privacy bounds — statements that would become publicly available on the FAA's website.
Current FAA approval or rejection of proposed drone flights depends upon whether such flights meet flight safety regulations. The lack of privacy-related restrictions has drawn fire from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights organization that has uncovered drone flight records through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Most aircraft-size drones flying above the homeland remain restricted to military airspace or to border patrol duty. But the FAA's interim rules already make exceptions for civilian government agencies to operate drones weighing 25 pounds or less.
The FAA plans to officially open up U.S. national airspace to drones by 2015.