The Federal Trade Commission’s recent workshop on drones raised familiar issues related to the privacy implications of a new and evolving technology. While the many potential innovations and consumer benefits of drone technology were highlighted, the workshop’s focus was on whether drones raise unique privacy considerations and, if so, how such considerations should be addressed.
Industry representatives stressed that the privacy issues associated with drones are fundamentally no different from those of other new technologies developed in recent decades, and they described the anti-tampering, encryption, and other safeguards that industry has introduced and continues to develop to address privacy and data security concerns. They cautioned against the potentially innovation-stifling introduction of technology-specific regulation, emphasizing that existing, technology-neutral laws are adequate to protect consumer privacy.
Privacy advocates, on the other hand, pointed out that drones present unique privacy risks that existing laws do not adequately address. Unlike other cameras, drones can access places that other devices cannot and are operated remotely by operators whose identity and purpose may not be discernable to individuals on the ground. Such lack of transparency makes it difficult, if not impossible, to provide consumers with effective notice and choice with respect to how photos, video, location, and other information about them may be collected and used. In light of such difficulty, Commission staff questioned whether it would be more appropriate to adopt a technology-specific approach that limits the collection and use of such information.
The workshop raised but did not resolve the issues. The Commission is accepting comments on the consumer privacy implications of drones until November 14, 2016. Once the staff has had an opportunity to review the workshop transcript and any comments received, it will determine whether to issue a report that sets out its expectations as to how drone manufacturers and operators can structure their practices to avoid a privacy-related charge of unfairness or deception under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.