The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade held a hearing on the impact of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”), or drones, on consumers and manufacturers. Although the Subcommittee’s charge is the safety of products sold or made available to the public, the privacy concerns raised by drones were a focus of the hearing.  

The hearing was titled “The Disrupter Series: The Fast-Evolving Uses and Economic Impacts of Drones” and was held on Capitol Hill on November 19, 2015.  The “Disrupter Series” hearings have been held by the Subcommittee to address how disruptive  technologies, such as the “Internet of Things” (the network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity, which enables these objects to collect and exchange data), are affecting consumers and industry.

The four hearing witnesses were Joshua M. Walden (Senior Vice President, Intel Corporation), John Villasenor (Professor of Public Policy, Electrical Engineering, and Management, University of California, Los Angeles), Brian Wynne (President and CEO, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) and Margot Kaminski (Assistant Professor, Moritz School of Law, Ohio State University).

While the prepared witness testimony statements for Mr. Walden, Prof. Villasenor and Mr. Wynne focused primarily on the positive aspects of drone technology on the economy and a lack of regulatory clarity on drone use, Prof. Kaminski’s testimony was mainly directed to the privacy issues raised by drone use, both by individuals and state and federal government actors.

In her opening remarks to the Subcommittee, Prof. Kaminski addressed the surveillance of individuals by drones, stating that drone surveillance is pervasive, persistent and can be performed from disruptive vantage points.

Prof. Kaminski continued by citing the tension between First Amendment free speech principles and drone regulations passed by states:  A number of appellate courts have recognized a limited First Amendment right to record.  Although the scope of this right is “very much up for question,” given the potential conflict between state privacy laws governing drone use and First Amendment recording rights, she cautioned the federal government against regulating drone use before providing courts the time needed to resolve this conflict.

Instead, Prof. Kaminski encouraged the federal government to regulate the use of drones by state and federal actors.  In particular, Prof. Kaminski cited the need for regulations addressing drone surveillance and data privacy.

According to Prof. Kaminski, information privacy harms by drones result when large amounts of drone-acquired data are correlated, used out of context, or used in a discriminatory fashion.  She continued by distinguishing online surveillance from drone surveillance:  in drone surveillance, as opposed to online surveillance, the person under surveillance has no relationship to the product manufacturer or service provider.

In closing the hearing, Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) stated: “Our Disrupter Series is exploring innovative new technologies that are improving lives and growing our economy. As part of our review, we have heard the many benefits of these technologies, including job creation and better consumer services, and have also heard about some of the natural fears that come with these changes. Drones are no exception. Industry has an obligation to responsibly bring these technologies to market. I encourage those in the drone industry to make safety, cybersecurity and privacy a priority.”

A recording of the hearing and witness prepared statements can be found here.