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Privacy concerns raised as UAVs become more common

Fears of unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with electronic sensors and cameras intruding on personal privacy created turbulence that led the Federal Aviation Administration to postpone plans to test drones in civilian airspace until Congress stepped in and reversed the agency’s course.

But a growing number of states and communities across the nation have introduced legislation to tackle the issue of privacy and UAVs. At least four states have enacted laws and lawmakers in 30 or so have submitted bills for consideration. Some areas require law enforcement agencies to have a warrant to fly a UAV for surveillance.

“The technology is getting to the point where they will be able to conduct surveillance for much longer periods of times at very efficient and cheap cost,” said Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. “We see drones representing a very unique threat to privacy.”

Advocates for unmanned flight say while privacy should be addressed, the message that UAVs will be the next revolution in flight capable of a wide swath of useful technology in weather forecasting to cargo hauling to search and rescue missions has been lost.

The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International believes UAVs “should be treated like any other system that can take a picture or collect data,” said Ben Gielow, an AUVSI lawyer and government relations manager in Washington, D.C.

“The issue shouldn’t be about the vehicle,” he said. “The issue should be about the data collection.”

Nick Worner, an American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio spokesman, said rules must be in place before drones take flight in civilian air space.

“The chief concern with drones, because of the newness of the technology, is that there are appropriate guidelines and protections in place when these technologies hit the skies,” he said.

In April, the city of Dayton dumped plans to use a manned aircraft for police surveillance after a public outcry despite city leaders creating policies to limit how the technology would be used.

In the midst of the latest debate, states driven by the promise of a future industry bringing jobs and high-tech growth have forged ahead in a fierce contest to land one of six FAA-designated UAV test sites by the end of the year. Ohio and Indiana submitted a joint proposal to the FAA.

Concerned with the public view and media coverage of UAVs, the Aerospace Industries Association released a report late last week hoping to change the way drones are perceived by many familiar with military uses of flying unmanned vehicles, such as finding and killing terrorism suspects.

The Hollywood idea of drones as “hunter-killers,” which influences public perceptions, gives a negative picture of UAVs, an aerospace industry spokesman said.

“That’s not really what unmanned systems are all about,” said Dan Stohr, an AIA spokesman. “There’s a great deal of untapped potential.”

But proponents may have a long way to go to persuade some. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has gone on record saying private drones pose a privacy threat, according to NBC News.

UAV proponents say people are under surveillance every day. We walk or drive within range of cameras in stores and restaurants, or workplaces, on street corners, when they withdraw money from ATM machines, or when they are near someone with a smart phone with a video recorder.

“While we are here on the ground, we are imaged so many multiple times a day, I think privacy concerns should be lodged in that direction as well,” said Rick Scudder, director of the Center for UAS Exploitation at the University of Dayton Research Institute.

Most UAVs in commercial use won’t be flying to gather personal data on someone, said Donald L. Smith, owner of UAV maker UA Vision in Dayton, who said privacy needs to be addressed, but concerns have been “overblown.”

“If you’re spending $500 to $1,000 an hour to do your jobs, whatever that may be, then your interest in looking at other things is going to be minimal,” he said.

He said legislation in one state to criminalize possession of a UAV with a camera was shortsighted.

“That kind of mindset is kind of scary,” he said. “I think there’s a middle ground somewhere between outlawing them entirely and laissez faire.

“The salient point is not to restrict the gathering of the data,” he said. “It’s to restrict the storage and dissemination of the data.”

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