The National Telecommunications and Information Administration today requested public comment on privacy issues related to the use of drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”).  The request came a day after two members of Congress introduced a bill that would impose significant privacy restrictions on drone operators.

The NTIA request is a result of a Feb. 15 White House memorandum directing the agency to engage the public and private sectors in a dialogue about privacy-related best practices for the operation of drones.  Although the White House memorandum addresses privacy concerns arising from both the private sector and the government’s use of drones, the NTIA request focuses only on private sector drone use.

The NTIA seeks comments on the following topics:

  • Privacy: The NTIA notes that UAS “pose privacy challenges regarding collection, use, retention, and dissemination of data collected by UAS,” and encourages stakeholders to “identify safeguards that address the privacy challenges posed by commercial and private UAS use.” The NTIA asks whether certain commercial uses of UAS raise heightened privacy concerns compared to others, and whether specific best practices “would mitigate the most pressing privacy challenges while supporting innovation.”
  • Transparency: NTIA states that transparent operation of UAS “can enhance privacy and bolster other values,” and requests commenters to “identify mechanisms, such as standardized physical markings or electronic identifiers, which could promote transparent UAS operation.”  The NTIA also asks how UAS operators can inform the public about operations that “significantly impact privacy, anti-nuisance, or safety interests.”
  • Accountability: The NTIA seeks comment on “mechanisms that can promote accountable UAS operation,” such as audits and assessments.  The NTIA also asks what “rules regarding conduct, training, operation, data handling, and oversight” would promote accountability for commercial drone operations.
  • Structure: The NTIA seeks comment about how to structure the multi-stakeholder engagement process, and whether existing best practices could serve as models for the participants’ work.

Comments will be due 45 days after the NTIA’s request is published in the Federal Register.

Separately, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., on Tuesday introduced a bill that would impose stringent privacy rules on the operators of drones.

The bill would require UAS operators to file with the Federal Aviation Administration a data collection statement “that provides reasonable assurance that the applicant will operate the unmanned aircraft system” in accordance with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s privacy principles.  Those principles include limitations on data collection, transfer, security, and use. In these statements, the operators would describe, among other things, the circumstances under which they would operate drones, the specific types of information that the operators would collect about individuals or groups, how they would use or disclose the data, and the steps that the operators would take to protect privacy.

The bill also would prohibit government law enforcement agencies and their contractors from using drones unless they filed “data minimization statements” that describe how they “minimize the collection by the unmanned aircraft system of information and data unrelated to the investigation of a crime under warrant” and require destruction of data that is no longer relevant.

Both the FTC and state attorneys general could enforce the law.  The legislation also allows injured individuals to bring actions for up to $1,000 in statutory damages (and $3,000 for injuries arising from intentional violations).

Separately, as we have reported earlier, the FAA has issued a proposal to allow limited commercial use of drones.  Comments are due on April 24.