A new partnership between the US Federal Aviation Administration and private companies to test out a fleet of commercial drones has privacy experts worried, according to a BuzzFeed article by Dan Vergano. The FAA has teamed up with CNN, BNSF Railroad, and PrecisionHawk, a drone maker.
According to the article, the main purpose of the project is to explore how drones could be used “for gathering news, surveying crops, and inspecting railroas,” but the major concerns are about where this is leading. Drones generally require built-in video cameras to function from the outset, and according to a recent Congressional Research Service report, many could soon come equipped with facial recognition technology as well. Given that the FAA’s exemptions for commercial drones shot up by over 500 percent last month, it’s not hard to imagine a future of commercial drone fleets using biometric face scans to mine the landscape for valuable consumer data to sell to third parties. And that, of course, would give rise to serious privacy concerns from citizens.
Also worrying is the fact that the FAA says that privacy considerations are beyond its mandate, and that most US states don’t yet have laws governing drone surveillance specifically, though there are laws protecting privacy more generally. It’s a murky area, and as with the case of so much new technology – from body-mounted police cameras to the myriad everyday devices collecting user data in the Internet of Things – regulators and legislators are only just starting to figure out how to find the right balance between technological utility and citizen privacy going forward.