Lawmakers: Lax FAA rules on drone surveillance will put privacy at risk

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) slammed the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday for failing to ensure that domestic drones will not invade the privacy of Americans. 

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“FAA does not appear to be prioritizing privacy and transparency measures in its plan to integrate nonmilitary drones into U.S. airspace," Markey said in a statement. "While there are benefits to using drones to gather information for law enforcement and appropriate research purposes, drones shouldn’t be used to gather private information on regular Americans."

The FAA is tasked with approving applications from government agencies to operate drones in domestic airspace. The FAA plans to allow for commercial groups to fly drones beginning in 2015.

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Drones are cheaper to build and fly than helicopters, making them a cost-effective option for police departments and other groups looking to gain a bird's eye view of a scene. But privacy advocates are worried that there aren't enough legal safeguards in place to prevent drones from being used for mass surveillance.

Markey and Barton, the co-chairmen of the congressional privacy caucus, sent a letter to the FAA in April, demanding answers about the FAA's review process and what it is doing to protect Americans' privacy.

The lawmakers released the FAA's responses on Thursday.

The FAA said its "chief mission is to ensure the safety and efficiency of the [national air space], as well as people and property on the ground."

The agency said it "recognizes that there are privacy concerns" related to drone operations, but acknowledged that it does not require drone operators to follow any privacy guidelines.

The FAA said that some of its policies "provide transparency and may contribute to privacy protections." The agency cited policies making drone registration data available to the public.

The agency said it will consider privacy concerns as it works on rules to allow for commercial drone operation in 2015.

“It took the FAA five months to answer seven questions,” Barton said in a statement. “I wish I could say the responses were worth the wait, but it was clear the agency isn’t focusing enough on privacy."

Barton said drones will be a large part of the future of surveillance, and it is important that policymakers act now to ensure basic privacy protections are in place.

"As the FAA continues their conversations with other government agencies and those in the industry, I hope that they will focus more on privacy so we can make sure that peoples’ rights aren’t violated,” he said.