Public drones equipped with facial recognition software raise privacy concerns

May 7, 2015 - 

In a partnership with CNN, drone manufacturer PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railroad, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it will test-fly an undisclosed number of small drones for collecting news, according to a report by Buzzfeed.

The move follows a February drafting of FAA rules governing commercial drone operations across the country, which would require commercial drones to fly below altitudes of 500 feet and remain within the line of sight of the operator on the ground.

Despite these requirements, the rules failed to mention concerns regarding privacy. And while a federal lawsuit, proposed laws, and voluntary guidelines are all attempting to enforce privacy standards for commercial drones, many privacy advocates feel as though it may be too late.

Drones are getting smaller and more agile and many of them will soon feature cameras with facial recognition software, according to an April Congressional Research Service report on privacy threats from drones.

“Drones are going to be in the air almost universally, most likely in a few years,” said Alan Butler, an attorney at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “And they are all going to be carrying high-definition video cameras.”

Currently, there are only a handful of states including Texas, Wisconsin, and Idaho, that have privacy rules in place against privately owned drones, which effectively allows any individual to spy on other parties.

In February, President Obama called on the Department of Commerce to hold meetings with federal agencies, business leaders, and interest groups to establish voluntary guidelines to prevent drones from infringing on the privacy of the public.

“There are a host of beneficial uses of drones that will benefit the public tremendously,” said Harley Geiger, an attorney at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington D.C. “But with the pace of the technology’s improvement, it’s important to establish privacy rules now.”

A Congressional Research Service report published last month details how the First Amendment — which allows people to take pictures in public places — makes it difficult for laws restricting commercial drones in public places to pass.

The FAA estimates that there will be up to 7,500 commercial drones in use by 2018, while a market analysis estimates that the industry will be worth $5 billion by 2019.

The agency is still deciding on the number of drones as well as the testing location, said FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.