In the first federal legislation authored by a committee chairman to focus on the privacy issues raised by non-military use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) recently released a draft bill that would impose privacy regulations on users of civil UAS. 

Although it will not see formal action during this session of Congress, components of the Rockefeller proposal may well serve as a basis for future federal and state bills.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Privacy Act of 2014 would require the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Transportation (DOT) to draft and implement regulations that would prohibit the use of any UAS for surveillance purposes without obtaining explicit prior consent from individuals photographed or filmed. The draft bill also would require UAS operators using surveillance technology to post privacy policies and to take reasonable measures to safeguard collected data.

In a statement released with the draft bill, Sen. Rockefeller said that while the “use [of UAS] is rapidly increasing and holds great promise for American businesses and consumers, [it] also pose[s] a significant privacy risk if we do not deal with such matters up front. This bill attempts to do just that. We need to address privacy concerns before it’s too late.”

The draft bill would require each privacy policy to make several statements including:

  • the specific purposes for which images, data, or other information would be collected;
  • how the images, data, and information would be used;
  • the circumstances under which the UAS would be operated, including the location, duration, time of day, and altitude;
  • all on-board information collection technology such as cameras, infrared sensors, or license plate readers;

  • the measures that will be taken to anonymize any data collected, if necessary; 

  • a statement that the collection of any images, data, or other information will be limited to the extent necessary for the specified purpose; and

  • a statement of the methods by which a subject of data collection may either obtain a copy of the information collected or revoke prior consent granted

Recreational model aircraft equipped with surveillance capabilities would follow a separate set of privacy standards, including a requirement that an end purchaser of a model aircraft from a manufacturer or retailer would need to be provided (to the extent practicable) a copy of the privacy guidelines at the time of purchase.

In addition, the draft bill would prohibit the weaponization of civil UAS and would direct the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) to examine lightweight, low-cost technologies capable of enabling remote identification of UAS. The draft bill also directs DOT to issue regulations to allow individuals to remotely identify UAS.

Federal lawmakers like Sen. Rockefeller are not the only ones to pay attention to privacy and UAS. California,Idaho, North CarolinaOregonTennessee, and Texas already have enacted related privacy laws at the state level. Notably, the Rockefeller legislation would not preempt these state laws, and it allows state attorneys general to enforce the federal standards. The Rockefeller draft bill also creates a private right of action for an invasion of privacy as a result of a violation of the Act.

Going forward, it will be important for users, manufacturers, and others involved in the UAS industry to monitor and, as necessary, help to inform this type of legislation and related state laws.