Lawmakers question FAA on privacy of drones

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers on Thursday questioned the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to test allowing drones to fly beside commercial airplanes in U.S. airspace.

The FAA is planning a pilot program that would allow unmanned aircraft to fly in six test sites. The agency said last month that the information from the test sites will be helpful in the full integration of unnamed aircraft into the U.S. aviation system.

But Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said in a letter to to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta Thursday that the agency should produce information about how it plans to protect the privacy of American citizens if drone use is increased.

"As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement March 7, 2012, 'Unmanned aircraft can help us meet a number of challenges, from spotting wildfires to assessing natural disasters,' " the lawmakers wrote.

"However, in addition to benefits, there is also potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections," the letter continued. "We are writing to express our concerns about the law's potential privacy implications and to requisition information about how the FAA is addressing these important matters."

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Barton and Markey are co-chairmen of the Congressional Privacy Caucus.

They said in a statement that they are not opposed to drones being allowed to fly in commercial airspace, they just want to make sure that privacy is priority.

“We must ensure that as drones take flight in domestic airspace, they don’t take off without privacy protections for those along their flight path,” Markey said. “The potential for invasive surveillance of daily activities with drone technology is high. Standards for informing the public and ensuring safeguards must be put in place now to protect individual privacy.”

“When the domestic use of drones was legalized in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, I knew that the usage of these unmanned aircraft would bring a great benefit to our local and state governments, as well as some businesses," Barton added. “However, if used improperly or unethically, drones could endanger privacy and I want to make sure that risk is taken into consideration.”

Congress ordered the FAA to move toward allowing drones to fly alongside commercial aircraft in both the National Defense Authorization Act and funding bill that was passed for the FAA earlier this year.

The laws call for the FAA to allow unmanned aircraft by 2015.

Supporters have said the use of drones in the commercial airspace would assist police departments in investigations, but groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have also raised privacy concerns.

"We don’t want to wonder, every time we step out our front door, whether some eye in the sky is watching our every move," the ACLU wrote in a blog post when the FAA authorization bill was being considered in February.