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U.S. legislators move to limit drone surveillance and facial recognition


Bicameral legislation was introduced last week to the U.S. houses of congress by Senator Edward J. Markey and Rep. Peter Welch to protect individual privacy from the growing number of government and commercial drones in use. The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act (PDF) has been referred to the House Committees on Transportation and Infrastructure and Energy and Commerce.

“What happens if there are drones that are gathering, through facial recognition, who is shopping on Main Street and selling that to advertisers?” Markey told a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on future drone use, Axios reports.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has put together a drone advisory committee, which Recode reports FAA Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems director Earl Lawrence referred to in response to Markey. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) published voluntary best practices guidelines in 2016 (PDF), which recommends some similar steps to notifying the public of data collection practices as those proposed in the Act.

The act requires applicants to the FAA for drone licenses to submit a data collection statement. The statement must include who will operate the drone, where it will fly, what kind of data will be collected and how it will be used, whether it will be sold to third parties, and how long it will be retained for.

It requires law enforcement agencies to have a warrant or “extreme exigent circumstances” to use drone surveillance. It also requires law enforcement agencies, their contractors and subcontractors to include an additional statement on how they will minimize data collection and retention of data unrelated to investigation of a crime. The FAA would also be required to create a website to list approved licenses, and the related data collection and minimization statements, as well as times and locations of drone flights, and data security breaches suffered by licensees.

The searchable information provided by the website would be required under the Act to disclose each drone’s technical capabilities, including facial recognition capabilities.

“Drones flying overhead could collect very sensitive and personally identifiable information about millions of Americans, but right now, we don’t have sufficient safeguards in place to protect our privacy,” said Senator Markey, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act requires transparency in domestic drone use and adds privacy protections that ensure this technology cannot and will not be used to spy on Americans.”

Senator Markey introduced similar legislation in 2015, which made it to Senate committee hearings in 2016 before stalling.

A separate bill in the Kentucky state legislature, sponsored by Rep. Diane St. Onge and significantly limiting the use of drone surveillance without a warrant by police, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week by a 6-2 vote, Spectrum News reports. House Bill 291, which includes the Citizens’ Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, passed through the State House of Representatives in February. It sets out parameters for criminal offences relating to drone use, limitations to evidence collection using drones, and exceptions for educational drone use by school districts.

The FAA estimates that up to 2.7 million commercial unmanned aircraft will be sold each year in the U.S. by 2020.

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