Perspective: Privacy concerns could keep Amazon delivery drones grounded

Several lawmakers are already calling for stringent privacy protections, and others are sure to follow

Amazon's nascent plan to use unmanned drones to deliver packages to customers has already raised strong privacy concerns that could ultimately nip it in the bud.

CEO Jeff Bezos' disclosure that a drone delivery service dubbed Amazon Prime Air could be delivering packages by 2015 has already prompted some lawmakers to call on Congress to implement new restrictions and rules surrounding the use of such private drones.

On the U.S. House floor Tuesday, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) likened Amazon's plans to something out of the old Jetsons cartoon. "Think of how many drones could soon be flying around the sky. Here a drone, there a drone, everywhere a drone in the United States."

He didn't stop there.

"The issue of concern, Mr. Speaker, is surveillance, not the delivery of packages," Poe said. "That includes surveillance of someone's backyard, snooping around with a drone, checking out a person's patio to see if that individual needs new patio furniture from the company."

Photographing swing sets, swimming pools, the people in the pools, or even peeking through windows could all be done with corporate drones, Poe warned in arguing for stringent privacy protections.

Massachusetts Democrat Senator Edward Markey, who just last month introduced the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, expressed similar concerns.

In a statement following Bezos's comments about Prime Air, Markey warned that new privacy protection laws must be passed "before our skies teem with commercial drones"

"Before drones start delivering packages, we need the FAA to deliver privacy protections for the American public. Convenience should never trump constitutional protections," Markey said.

Poe and Markey are but two of many that have called for the creation of rules to protect the public from potential privacy intrusions by civilian and law enforcement drones.

Privacy groups and lawmakers began speaking out on the issue after the President Barack Obama-backed Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 cleared the way for commercial drone use in the United States.

Most of the early concerns focused on limiting law enforcement's use of drone technology to conduct persistent, warrantless surveillance on people.

Eight states have already enacted legislation imposing restrictions on police use of drones, while 34 others considered similar legislation this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Most of the bills would require police to obtain a probable cause warrant before they could use a drone to gather information in an investigation.

Meanwhile, Texas, Idaho and Oregon have passed laws targeting private drone use.

Idaho's bill, which the ACLU says may violate the First Amendment, prohibits photography or video recording by drones for profit. Oregon's law prohibits drones from flying less than 400 feet over the property of a person requesting such limits. The Texas law imposes a bunch of restrictions on private drone use, according to the ACLU.

In February, Charlottesville, Va. became the first city in the U.S. to ban drones from its airspace "to the extent compatible with federal law." The resolution prohibits city agencies from buying, leasing, borrowing or testing drones and includes a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine for up to $10,000 for violators.

There's no telling how long it could take for Amazon's Prime Air service to take off amid the criticism and legal barriers.

For one thing, Amazon has to get FAA approval before it can really move forward with its plan to use 8-propeller "octocopter" delivery drones to deliver packages weighing less than 5 pounds to customers living within 10 miles of the company's fulfillment centers.

The FAA itself has pointed to numerous security, privacy, procedural and operational challenges that industry will need to overcome before commercial drones can be licensed in really significant numbers.

For instance, the FAA wants standards in place to ensure that unmanned aircraft are capable of sensing and avoiding other aircraft before it issues licenses for commercial drone use.

The FAA also wants standards created for vetting drone operators and for ensuring the systems cannot be hacked remotely.

Bezos' plans for drone delivery is sure to prompt even shriller calls for security and privacy protections, especially because other companies are sure to follow suit.

The usual examples of private drone use trotted out by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade group and others involves relatively tame situations like crop dusting or the showing of properties by real estate agents.

The fact that a company the size of Amazon is considering using drones to deliver products is sure to cause many to take another look at privacy implications of such activities.

So far, privacy rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center haven't said anything about Amazon's plans. But it's a sure bet that they will closely scrutinize the privacy implications sooner rather than later.

Bezos' ambitious plan may eventually fly. But not unless it can first overcome multiple privacy, security and policy obstacles.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His email address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

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