EPIC appeals to court for FAA drone privacy rules

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) asked an appeals court on Tuesday to force the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to come up with privacy rules concerning drones.

Many are worried that small, cheap, camera-equipped devices could soon be zipping around their neighborhoods, peering into gardens, through windows and into other areas that are generally considered private.

EPIC, a Washington, D.C., based non-profit, and 34 other groups had previously petitioned the FAA to start a public procedure that would lead to drone privacy regulations, but the FAA rejected the request. Tuesday’s filing at the D.C. Court of Appeals seeks to reverse that.

The current rules concerning drone use are geared solely towards safety. Private flight is covered by guidelines similar to those for model aircraft, while companies are generally prohibited from commercial flight, although the FAA has begun issuing issue stop-gap licenses that allow restricted flight until formal rules are developed.

That rule making process began in February and has attracted close to 2,000 comments. Some call on the agency to consider privacy, but the FAA argues that its primary concern is aviation safety.

“We have determined that the issue you gave raised is not an immediate safety concern,” the FAA said in November 2014 when it rejected EPIC’s original request. The FAA went on to say it would consider EPIC’s request as part of its commercial drone flight rules, but when they were published in February they included no mention of privacy.

Instead, on the same day the FAA announced its proposed rules, the White House said it had asked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to explore the issue of drones and privacy.

Some don’t think specific privacy regulations are needed. Speaking at a recent senate hearing, John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Intuition, warned against a rush to new rules.

He said the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution already addresses any privacy implications from government use of drones, while ample trespass laws exist to protect individuals from privately-operated drones.

The issue is one of several expected to be strongly debated between now and 2017, when the FAA regulations are expected to come into force.

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