The FBI has been flying drones since 2005, according to a trickle of documents released over the last eight months. Agents called in a small surveillance drone on a hostage situation in Alabama in February 2013, and to monitor a dog-fighting scheme in August 2011.
But despite a mandatory process designed to mitigate privacy concerns, the question of how FBI drones may be impacting Americans’ privacy rights remains unanswered.
Federal law requires the FBI to assess its own surveillance technologies for potential privacy and civil liberties snags. While these technology assessments are typically prepared for public consumption, the FBI has refused to release its privacy reviews on drones.
The E-Government Act of 2002 obliges federal agencies to conduct a privacy impact assessment (PIA) prior to deploying any information technology that collects personal information. Per Department of Justice guidelines, the PIA process ensures that privacy protections “are built into the system from the start—not after the fact,” in order to “promote trust between the public and the Department by increasing transparency of the Department’s systems and missions.”
In keeping with their fundamentally public function, privacy impact reports must be “clear, unambiguous, and understandable to the general public” under DOJ guidelines. The default is for agencies to complete a given privacy impact assessment with enough lead time for it to be evaluated, approved and posted online before any testing or piloting of the given technology.
Last July, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) wrote a letter to the FBI expressing concern that privacy protections around surveillance drones “could be undercut by the Bureau’s interpretation of what constitutes a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy.'”
An audit of the DoJ’s use of drones released in September determined the FBI had not addressed the danger to privacy posed by unmanned vehicles, and recommended implementing drone-specific guidelines to protect privacy rights. One of the report’s footnotes highlighted that the FBI’s Office of General Counsel was “conducting a privacy review” of its drone program as of June 2013, but any documents relating to this review have not been released.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com