Drone industry's Code of Conduct disappoints

People concerned about the privacy implications of civilian drones operating over American airspace are likely to be disappointed by a recent “Code of Conduct” released by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

The AUVSI is a large and influential group representing the unmanned aerial vehicle industry. The group claims to have over 7000 members from 2,100 organizations in over 60 countries. Its members include representatives from some of the largest companies in the aerospace industry including Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, BAE Systems and numerous others.

The group’s code seeks to address public concerns related to the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles by commercial entities, government agencies and private citizens. The document starts off by recognizing the issue is a big one, but then goes on to offer little that can be actually enforced or used to develop policy.

“The emergence of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as a resource for a wide variety of public and private applications quite possibly represents one of the most significant advancements to aviation…. since the beginning of flight,” the code’s opening sentences states. “The nature of UAS and the environments which they operate, when not managed properly, can and will create issues that need to be addressed.”

But after that promising start, the rest of the three-page document simply lists a set of very broad conduct codes that all members of UAVSI will apparently adhere to when building testing or operating drones.

The codes of conduct incudes general promises not to operate unmanned vehicles in a manner that present “undue risk”, and to always be “responsive to the needs of the public.” AUVSI members who adopt the code will  “respect the privacy of individuals”, and the “concerns of the public as they relate to unmanned aircraft.”

The document promises that members of AUVSI will operate drones responsibly and that they “will comply with all federal, state, and local laws, ordinances, covenants, and restrictions as they relate to UAS operations”.

There’s nothing in the document that attempts to explain how any of this will be enforced and by whom. There’s no discussion at all about the myriad potential privacy and safety issues raised by unrestricted drone use over U.S. airspace. There’s nothing about the intended audience here either, but presumably the codes are meant for commercial and private drone operators and not government agencies.

As an attempt at self-regulation, the AUVSI’s Code of Conduct contains considerably less information and detail compared to similar codes of conduct developed by other industry bodies.  

One example is the Digital Signage Federation’s Digital Signage Privacy Standards pertaining to the use of facial recognition, RFID tracking, and other technologies to deliver targeted digital-out-of-home messaging. DSF’s document clearly spells out a list of codes based on the widely accepted Fair Information Practices (FIPS) standards.

It specifies the language that all digital signage vendors should include in their privacy policies and the kind of notice they need to provide consumers. It calls on stakeholders to limit data collection, specify the purpose for which data is collected how it will be used, shared and destroyed. Importantly, it calls on digital signage companies to establish internal accountability mechanisms.

Even others such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Network Advertising Initiative whose attempts at self-regulation have been criticized by privacy advocates, have far more detailed codes of conduct compared to the one released by the AUVSI.  

Drone privacy issues have become a hot topic following the passage of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012,. The bill (H.R. 658) that was signed into law by President Barack Obama in February basically requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to permit the use of drones by law enforcement agencies, commercial organizations and private citizens.

The law has already given law enforcement agencies and emergency services the authority to use drones that weigh less than five pounds and fly at an altitude of less than 400 feet. By the end of 2015, the FAA is required to have rules in place permitting the use of all varieties of drones by law enforcement and private entities. Over the next few years, thousands of drones are likely to be in use for varied applications like fugitive tracking and traffic management by law enforcement agencies, crop monitoring, land management, news reporting and filmmaking.

The fact that the law was passed without any privacy protections in it at all has appalled many privacy and rights groups. Many of these groups have claimed that filling the sky with thousands of civilian drones will raise an unprecedented set of privacy problems. Groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology and many others have pointed out that drones can be equipped with facial recognition cameras, license plate readers, thermal-imaging cameras and other technologies that will enable consistent and pervasive surveillance. Drones flying over 400 feet will be considered to be operating in public space and anything it observes from that height will have few privacy protections, such groups have argued.

Some lawmakers have begun responding to such concerns. Last month Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012 that seeks to prohibit the use of drones by government except when a warrant is issued. Paul’s bill, and a companion bill that was introduced in the House by Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) contain broad exceptions for drone use by government in "exigent" circumstances, when there is risk of terrorist attacks and to patrol borders. But the bills do attempt to rein in drone use at least to a certain extent.

The AUVSI’s code of conduct was released in the wake of these bills and may well have been a response to the proposed legislation. But if the document was meant to reassure people that the drone industry is taking privacy concerns seriously, it may well have the opposite effect.

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