WASHINGTON -- Privacy laws urgently need to be updated to protect the public from information-gathering by the thousands of civilian drones expected to be flying in U.S. skies in the next decade or so, legal experts told a Senate panel yesterday.
A budding commercial drone industry is poised to put mostly small, unmanned aircraft to countless uses, from monitoring crops to acting as lookouts for police SWAT teams, but federal and state privacy laws have been outpaced by advances in drone technology, the experts said.
Current privacy protections from aerial surveillance are based on court decisions from the 1980s, the Judiciary Committee was told, before widespread drone use was anticipated.
In general, manned helicopters and planes already have the potential to do the same kinds of surveillance and intrusive information gathering, but drones can be flown more cheaply and at less risk to human life. That makes it likely that surveillance and information-gathering will become much more widespread, legal experts said.
The Federal Aviation Administration predicted recently that about 7,500 civilian drones will be in use within five years after the agency grants them greater access to U.S. skies. Congress has directed the FAA to provide drones with widespread access to domestic airspace by 2015, but the agency is behind in its development of safety regulations.
If privacy concerns aren't addressed first, the benefits of potentially "transformative" drone technology may not be realized, Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor, told the committee.
It's in "everyone's interest to update the law, even if only to provide the industry with the kind of bright lines it needs to develop this technology," said Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group.
Initially, most civilian drones are expected to be the size of a backpack or smaller, weighing less than 55 pounds and unable to fly higher than most birds.
The U.S. military uses everything from unarmed, hand-launched drones like the 2.9-pound Wasp to systems such as the MQ-9 Reaper that flies up to 50,000 feet and can fire Hellfire missiles and guided bombs.