Another voice: Drone regulations need more privacy protections

Published Feb. 20, 2015

The first time a drone flies over a Silicon Valley neighborhood it will be a novelty. The second, third and fourth flyovers will generate legitimate questions about privacy, public safety and future applications of their use.

The Federal Aviation Administration this month released its long-awaited proposed set of rules for the use of nonmilitary drones weighing under 55 pounds. The proposed guidelines don't go far enough to protect Americans' privacy and go too far in restricting reasonable drone use in an effort to ensure the safety of our airways.

Protecting the public's privacy should be the FAA's first priority. The National Security Agency's assaults on basic privacy rights makes it essential that the FAA spell out what constitutes unwarranted intrusions into our lives. The FAA rules "allows the use of data gathered by domestic drones for any 'authorized purpose.' " That leaves the door wide open for abuse at all levels of government.

The rules should be clear. The government should make it illegal for law enforcement agencies to use drones to spy on Americans without a warrant, unless an emergency situation threatening the public safety dictates an exception.

Crafting smart regulations for commercial, agricultural and private drone use poses significantly more challenges for the FAA.

The potential benefits are huge. Search and rescue operations come quickly to mind. Crop management and safety inspection applications are equally obvious. And companies such as Amazon and major grocery chains see savings and growth opportunities in using drones to deliver products to customers' doorsteps, cutting delivery times and transportation costs. In all, the FAA estimates that more than 7,000 businesses will obtain drone permits within the first three years that its law goes into effect, creating what is expected to be a $7 billion industry.

But the FAA proposal to limit drone use to daylight use and within the visual sight of operators is a major blow to the emerging technology.

No one likes the notion of an out-of-control, 55-pound drone dropping like a rock in our neighborhoods or business areas. But a flat-out ban on the potential of drone delivery services is being overly cautious, especially when our European competitors, such as Germany, are making rapid strides in allowing their use. A restriction against nighttime flights will also make drones much less effective in agricultural areas.

The FAA is opening the proposed regulations for public comment for 60 days. The force of public opinion on key technological issues — the recent Net neutrality debate comes to mind — has been a critical factor in persuading federal agencies to alter their thinking on crucial consumer issues.

The final rules likely won't go into effect before 2017. The FAA should use the time to strengthen its privacy protections and revisit the rules on nighttime drone use and visual-only operations.