Under pressure from a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, lawsuit, the Department of Transportation has opened documents, including a final report, from closed meetings of the Federal Aviation Administration’s drone task force.
“Several participants warned about privacy risks in drone deployment,” EPIC noted in its May 9 announcement of the disclosure. According to the minutes from a Nov. 3, 2015, task force meeting, someone said, “Why do we need to register small UAS? Safety for all stakeholders: Flying public, nonflying public, operators, owners, property and infrastructures. Current state of non-regulation negatively affects the public perception of drones. There is no regulatory recourse for anyone who is negatively affected by a small UAS.”
Privacy came up again in discussing whether to require drone owners to register as indoor or outdoor devices: “What is the incentive for operators to register? How can we be sure that operators will make the same distinctions between ‘indoor’ vs. ‘outdoors’ as regulator would, i.e. flying in the backyard may be ‘indoors’ in that it is on the operator’s private property.”
Drone operators also expressed concerns about how the information collected in drone registration would be used. “The FAA clarified that all government-collected information is subject to FOIA,” the documents stated. “Whether such information would be released to the public depends on case-by-case evaluation of privacy interests and other FOIA exemptions. The relevant interpretation in this situation is: A private registrant would have an expectation of privacy and therefore would not have as much of its collected information released as would a corporate registrant.”
EPIC has criticized the U.S. government for its establishment of the task force from the beginning, saying that it was thrown together hastily and without enough input from the public.
It is interesting that this press release focuses so much on privacy. Very few of the task force members were attornies who were qualified to address the issue. In retrospect, the third point, who would have access to the drone registration records, turns out to be the real issue here.
If one reads the Final Report provided under the court ruling – and which looks very much like documents provided previously – one sees that:
Because this new requirement will impact unmanned aircraft owners who do not have the means to protect their identities and addresses behind corporate structures (as some manned aircraft owners currently do), it is important for the FAA to take all possible steps to shield the information of privately owned aircraft from unauthorized disclosure, including issuing an advance statement that the information collected will be considered to be exempt from disclosure under FOIA.
Was the task force misled when someone(s) said that a private registration would have an expectation of privacy? Because clearly that has not turned out to be the case.
UPDATE Here is what EPIC just published in their newsletter.