The time to build safeguards into drone privacy laws is now, a panel of experts said in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.
As the Federal Aviation Administration mulls allowing up to 30,000 drones take to the skies over the next several decades, a group of privacy experts and advocates said that Congress should consider the impact of unmanned drone use in the United States before they become commonplace.
"It's possible to have these conversations now because the technologies are still visible," Bruce Schneier, a tech security expert and cryptologist, said at the National Press Club. "In 10 years, they'll be small, they'll be everywhere, it'll be too late."
Last year, Congress tasked the FAA with setting up guidelines to allow the use of drones. But the agency has hit a roadblock with local communities objecting to six nationwide testing sites over privacy concerns. For now, the FAA has issued more than 300 drone licenses to government agencies around the country. At least one American citizen has been arrested with the help of a Predator drone.
Gretchen West, executive vice president for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which represents the drone industry, says Congress should have handled drone privacy issues themselves instead of delegating it to the FAA.
"It's not the FAA's mandate to be in charge of privacy, it's their mandate to make sure the skies are safe for aircraft," she said. "They have no experience in [privacy]."
Legislators on both sides of the aisle and legal experts have said that fourth amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure might not apply to drone surveillance, and that specific safeguards have to be put in place in order to guarantee privacy.
The Supreme Court case Florida v. Riley in 1989 established that fourth amendment protections don't apply if a manned aircraft gathers surveillance from public airspace. West says that use of a drone is "no different than using a manned helicopter or a manned Cessna" for surveillance.
Legal scholars say that it's unclear whether the Florida decision would apply in the case of drones, but some legislators aren't taking chances.
Tuesday, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) announced that he plans to reintroduce the Preserving American Privacy Act, a bill that would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant to operate a drone for surveillance purpose and would severely limit private drone operators from using their drones for surveillance purposes.
"My opinion is that Congress should take the lead on this issue rather than wait for cases to occur that end up in various courts throughout the country," Poe said Tuesday. "We have to make sure the fourth amendment standards apply with regard to the use of drones."
Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University, says there is some precedent for Congress acting before potential privacy issues arise.
"With the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, Congress was protecting people's emails before most people knew what email was," he said. "We can try to regulate them from the outset, focus on when drones can be used, where they can go, and what they can collect."