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Flying into Acceptance

Flying into Acceptance

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have become a beneficial part of society.  Their small, unmanned nature allows them to fly to places humans cannot – from remote or dangerous areas to where humans are too big to fit.  But with this new technology comes questions about how to regulate its use, especially to ensure privacy.

The Federal Trade Commission recently hosted a workshop on UAS as part of its Fall Technology Series.  The forum brought together stakeholders from industry, consumer-protection groups, and academia to discuss privacy issues related to UAS. 

The speakers generally agreed that UAS-specific laws are unnecessary and that existing tort, criminal, and technology laws are sufficient to cover UAS operator behavior and data collection.  They worry that UAS-specific laws could hinder innovation, so any new laws should be technology-neutral.   If the government does decide to enact new laws, multiple panelists stressed the need to clearly define problems before attempting to regulate.  Doing so will help determine if existing laws are sufficient, or if we need really need new ones.

But those who want UAS-specific laws point to gaps in current law and the aerial nature of UAS to justify them.  They question whether these laws can be adapted to fit what UAS do in the air.  Speakers also noted that one key problem that may require a drone-specific law is identifying the person flying the drone.  This could require regulations on how registration numbers are displayed.

The speakers also had a lively discussion over who should regulate UAS -- industry or government.  Some argued that because industry has developed a number of safety features and rules without government forcing action, the best approach would be to let companies innovate once a problem is identified. 

Others noted that government still has a role to play.  Government can help verify reports of bad operator behavior so industry has better data on potential problems.  Government can also bring people together.  The NTIA recently held a stakeholders meeting to develop standards for drone use.  Industry speakers found this process productive and were very supportive of the resulting standards.  They cautioned against making these standards binding, since generally-applicable laws exist already to protect the public.  Instead, they urged the government to let industry decide how to implement these standards – and many companies have already done so. 

The FTC is still determining its role in regulating privacy and UAS.  The Commission already publishes a general guidance on privacy that applies across industries.  One option speakers raised is for the FTC to use its Section 5 powers to enforce privacy, while another is to rely on notice-and-choice, where operators would be required to give notice of their UAS operations.  Both options run into the problem of whether the FTC should act specifically on UAS or on all data-collecting technologies.  The various ways UAS are used also presents challenges for how the FTC decides to get involved. 

Everyone agreed that the public’s perception of UAS needs to change.  Most people associate UAS with the military or the often-negative stories they see in the news.  Many are also worried about the information and images UAS collect, whether unmanned aircraft are used to stalk or peep on homes, and knowing who is operating the UAS.  Showing more stories of how UAS are used in everyday life can help change these perceptions and make the public more comfortable with them.

New technologies often raise questions about privacy.  Once upon a time people had similar concerns about an intrusive new technology called the camera.  Government, industry, and the public eventually addressed those concerns and today almost everyone has a camera in their pocket.  UAS should not be different.  

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