US lobbying group the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) has sued the Federal Aviation Administration’s Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), accusing it of failing to enforce its own transparency mandate.

The 11 April complaint, filed in the District of Columbia District Court, alleges that, while the DAC has been regularly meeting with and advising the FAA since it was established in 2016, it has only made a “small number” of meeting records available to the public.

The DAC is tasked with identifying and recommending a “consensus-based” set of resolutions for the safe and efficient integration of drones into the US National Airspace System (NAS). Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), advisory committee meetings and their “records, reports, transcripts, minutes, appendixes, working papers, drafts, studies, agenda, or other documents” are required to be open to the public.

EPIC, however, claims the DAC has “conducted much of its work in secret”, outside of the public view in smaller subcommittees and “task groups” which have “directly advised senior FAA officials about drone policy”. None of these meetings, EPIC says, have been open to the public.

EPIC’s suit asks the court to order the DAC to “preserve, index and release” its records, and to open all future subcommittee and task group meetings to the public. Agencies cannot force interested parties to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain such records, it says.

EPIC also requests that the DAC be ordered to “halt all proceedings until it has fully complied with its transparency obligations”, and that all of the committee’s recommendations and actions prior to compliance should be set aside.

EPIC says it is concerned that the publicly available records suggest that the DAC has “almost entirely ignored public concerns about the impending risks of drone surveillance in the United States”. The group believes that “the integration of drones into US airspace will adversely affect millions of Americans”, citing reports of drones threatening the safety of both civilians and law enforcement as well as an alleged increase in surveillance by drones on private property and so-called drone stalking incidents, in which drones are used to follow and record individuals without their permission.

The suit is the latest in a string of complaints EPIC has brought against the FAA in recent years. It first sued the agency in 2012, after the FAA denied a petition from the group demanding that they issue privacy regulations to “safeguard the interests of the American public”. The group subsequently filed suit to challenge the FAA’s final rules for the operation of small drones, which does not, according to EPIC, consider privacy issues to be within its scope, a case which is currently pending before the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

In the United States District Court for the District of Columbia

Electronic Privacy Information Centre v Drone Advisory Committee et al

  • Judge Rudolph Contreras

Counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Centre

  • Mark Rotenberg, EPIC president and executive director.
  • Alan Butler, EPIC senior counsel.
  • John Davisson, EPIC counsel.