Two senior lawmakers this week sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration demanding information on how the agency will ensure that privacy rights are protected when it issues drone licenses to government, law enforcement and private organizations.
Under the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law by President Barack Obama in February, the FAA is required to permit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by a wide range of organizations including private hobbyists.
The law requires the FAA to make rules pertaining to the safe operation of private, commercial and government drones over U.S. airspace. Under the law, law enforcement authorities and emergency services will be allowed to start using small drones as early as next month.
Over the next few years, thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles of varying sizes and capabilities are expected to be in use over U.S. skies for applications such as fugitive tracking, traffic management, crop monitoring, land management, news reporting and filmmaking.
Privacy and civil rights groups have expressed alarm over the privacy implications of widespread drone use especially by government and law enforcement agencies. They maintain that drones equipped with high-tech cameras and listening devices will be able to conduct unprecedented surveillance of civilians.
In a letter sent Thursday to the FAA acting administrator Michael Huerta, Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) expressed similar concerns.
While drones may serve many useful purposes, they can also enable "invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections," the two lawmakers wrote.
They noted that many drones are equipped to carry video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar and wireless network sniffers. "The surveillance power of drones is amplified when the information from onboard sensors is used in conjunction with facial recognition, behavior analysis, license plate recognition" and other systems, the letter stated.
The two lawmakers, who are co-chairmen of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, demanded to know what the FAA is doing to build privacy and public transparency requirements into its drone-licensing program.
The lawmakers also wanted to know if the public will be notified when the drones will be used, by whom and for what purpose, what data is collected and how it will be used, stored and destroyed. They also wanted to know if the FAA would require drone operators to abide by specific privacy guidelines and what those guidelines would be.
Markey and Barton asked the FAA if the agency plans on working with businesses, government, law enforcement and community groups on privacy and transparency issues as it makes rules for drone use in the U.S.
The FAA has the "opportunity and the responsibility to ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected and the public is fully informed about who is using drones in public airspace and why."
The FAA could not immediately be reached for comment.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.