Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized the use of hundreds of drones in U.S. airspace in recent years but offered few details on who is operating them.

This week, a privacy advocacy group filed suit to force the Department of Transportation to release its records publicly.

“Drones give the government and other unmanned aircraft operators a powerful new surveillance tool to gather extensive and intrusive data on Americans’ movements and activities,” said Jennifer Lynch, attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Northern California. “As the government begins to make policy decisions about the use of these aircraft, the public needs to know more about how and why these drones are being used to surveil United States citizens.”

The FAA regulates the operation of drones domestically, and only occasionally grants permission to the federal and local agencies seeking authority to fly unmanned vehicles. But those decisions, civil liberties groups point out, are based on safety concerns, not privacy concerns.

With growing interest in drones and their applications — to patrol U.S. borders, to search for criminal suspects, even to track the spread of forest fires — privacy advocates are now showing increasing concern about the policies guiding their use.

“In my mind, the first step is to get the information from the FAA about who has authorization,” Lynch said in an interview. “We don’t really know very much right now...”