We have previously noted that people often view new technology with skepticism, and even trepidation bordering on fear. That perception changes as both costs decrease (resulting in more people using and adapting to the new technology) and the recognition of the tangible benefits produced by the new technology. In the early 20th Century, both automobiles and planes were new technology, and were initially met with resistance and skepticism.

A recent NASA study analyzed human reaction to audio recordings of noise created by automobiles, drones, as well as computer generated sounds (auralizations). In short, the study found that the human subjects rated noise created by drones as significantly more annoying than traffic noise.

It is important to note (and the study itself notes) that this is a single study and it “was not conceived to be a comprehensive examination of noise from either sUAS or road vehicles. Rather, it was meant, primarily, to demonstrate the extensibility of tools and facilities that NASA already possesses to the realm of sUAS noise. Therefore, it is unwise to attempt to generalize the results of this study beyond those stated in the discussion, and beyond the limited set of vehicles and conditions tested.”

The study also notes that the sound made by a drone does not qualitatively resemble the sound made by manned aircraft. As noted in the study: “This difference in sound quality introduces an unknown factor into the prediction of the resultant annoyance.”

Although this is a single study and is limited in scope, the initial analysis of the results of the study suggests that at least for the near future, the noise created by drones is another hurdle to overcome in accomplishing widespread public acceptance of having drones operating in near proximity to humans.

Another takeaway from the study is that human reaction to the noise from drones may compel some local governments to enact regulations governing where drones can operate due to the fact that people appear to find drone noise more objectionable than other routine background noise. Such would be unfortunate, assuming that the drone noise in question is no louder than other background noise.

 

FAA Privacy

As a uniquely transformative technology, drones have the capacity to enrich our daily lives with innovative services, safer infrastructure, new forms of recreation, and countless  economic opportunities. These positive characteristics, however, cannot erase the risks drones pose to individual privacy. But the FAA opted not to include any privacy provisions in Part 107 for one important reason: it couldn’t.

Drone technology sparks concerns about personal privacy, data privacy, private property rights, and intellectual property rights—often stemming from cameras and other high-tech equipment installed on drones. But there appears to be little agreement about the extent to which drone integration poses risks for privacy intrusions, how privacy concerns should be addressed, and the FAA’s role in efforts to address these concerns.

In response to its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking entitled Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft System, the FAA received voluminous commentary that revealed deep discord on privacy issues from the public, industry stakeholders, and other agencies with authority and expertise. See 80 FR 9544, Feb. 23, 2015.

Many commenters raised concerns about drone operations over private property without approval from businesses, institutions, or property owners. Some asserted that the FAA should include provisions in Part 107 to protect privacy; others suggested the FAA address privacy in a future rulemaking. Still others took the position that privacy regulations are beyond the scope of this rulemaking and FAA authority or asserted that existing law already adequately addresses privacy issues.

Many commenters emphasized that privacy concerns are best addressed at the state level. Some recommended a federally commissioned review of 1) the technological neutrality of FAA drone proposed rules led by the Department of Commerce and 2) of the adequacy of comparative technology-neutral privacy regulations led by the Department of Justice.

Among policymakers, industry, advocacy groups and members of the public, it is clear that a substantial debate is ongoing regarding the extent to which drone operations pose truly novel privacy issues, and whether those issues are addressed by existing legal frameworks.

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FAA Authority Concerning Privacy Rights

The FAA’s authority to make rules is specifically tied to its safety mission: to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world. Concerns that drones pose risks to individual privacy are typically related to technology and equipment that may be installed on a drone or manned aircraft, but are unrelated to the safe flight of the aircraft. Indeed, pilots have placed cameras and other sensors on aircraft for a variety of purposes for decades (e.g., news helicopters, aerial surveys, film/television production, and law enforcement). Yet the FAA has never extended its reach to regulate the use of cameras and other sensors extraneous to the safe operation of aircraft to protect individual privacy.

Stated bluntly, the FAA simply lacks rulemaking authority to issue or enforce regulations specifically aimed at protecting privacy interests between third parties. [1] Part 107, in particular, is being conducted under the 1) FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA), 2) 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(1) and (2), and 3) 49 U.S.C. § 44701(a)(5). Each statute focuses on the safe operation of aircraft in the National Airspace System (NAS). So, in light of the FAA’s long-standing mission and authority as a safety agency, it would be overreaching for the FAA to enact regulations concerning privacy rights.

In § 332(a) of the FMRA, Congress required the FAA to develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil drones into the NAS. That mandate includes specific direction regarding the contents of the plan, which addressed the safe and efficient integration of drones into the airspace. But it did not require consideration of privacy implications.

What is more, under FMRA § 332(b), Congress directed the FAA to issue a final rule on small drones that allows for civil drone operations in the NAS. And FMRA § 333 directs the FAA to determine whether drone operations posing the least amount of public risk could safely be operated in the NAS.

If the FAA determines, pursuant to § 333, that certain drones may operate safely in the national airspace system, then the FAA must establish requirements for the safe operation of these systems in the NAS, prior to completion of the drone comprehensive plan and rulemaking required by § 332.

Furthermore, 49 U.S.C. 40103(b)(1) and (2) charge the FAA with issuing regulations 1) to ensure the safety of aircraft and the efficient use of airspace; and 2) to govern the flight of aircraft for purposes of navigating, protecting and identifying aircraft, and protecting individuals and property on the ground. Additionally, 49 U.S.C. 44701(a)(5) requires that the FAA prescribe regulations it finds necessary for safety in air commerce and national security.

In essence, none of the drone-related provisions of the FMRA directed the FAA to consider privacy issues when addressing the integration of small drones into the airspace, or mandated the inclusion of privacy considerations in the drone comprehensive plan. Reading such a mandate into the FMRA would be a significant expansion beyond the FAA’s long-standing statutory authority as a safety agency.

That is not to say the federal government is ignoring privacy concerns. On February 15, 2015, President Obama issued the Presidential Memorandum, “Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” That memorandum directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) to establish a multi-stakeholder engagement process—including stakeholders from the private sector—to develop and communicate Best Practices for privacy, accountability, and transparency issues regarding commercial and private drone use. On May 18, 2016, the stakeholders came to a consensus and issued a document on Best Practices for privacy and other issues surrounding drone use.


 [1] When the FAA is collecting, maintaining, and using information about individuals, the FAA must comply with the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. 552a, and other applicable legal requirements related to privacy.

In June 2016, the FAA released its final Part 107 rules, allowing the operation of commercial drones in the National Airspace System (NAS). Whether these rules are infringing on the First Amendment is a developing topic. In Part I, we discussed the First Amendment and the different standards of review courts apply to determine whether restrictions on speech are constitutional. Here, we will explore and analyze the FAA’s argument that Part 107 is consistent with the First Amendment.

Restrictions on Speech in a Nonpublic Forum

Restrictions placed on activities that occur in a nonpublic forum receive the lowest level of First Amendment scrutiny. As noted in Part I, whether all U.S. airspace is a public or nonpublic forum is not clear.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that airspace is a nonpublic forum, the FAA may impose restrictions in the NAS that are “reasonable and viewpoint neutral.” This reasonableness analysis focuses on whether the limitation is consistent with preserving the property for the purpose to which it is dedicated.

The FAA argues that Part 107 directly addresses its interest in preserving the safety of aircraft flying in the NAS, as well as the safety of people on the ground. Thus, Part 107 is reasonable.

The FAA also asserts that Part 107 is viewpoint neutral because it does not specifically target a certain opinion or stance. In short, the FAA believes that Part 107 is consistent with the First Amendment under this standard of review.

Incidental Restrictions on Speech in a Public Forum

Now, let’s assume that the NAS is a public forum. On that basis, the FAA asserts that the appropriate category in which to evaluate Part 107 would be as an incidental restriction on speech. In particular, the FAA posits that the activity regulated by Part 107—flying a drone—is not speech or an expressive activity.

Instead, according to the FAA, the flight of a small drone has only an incidental relationship to expressive conduct because it could be used to assist an expressive activity, such as recording via camera. At bottom, the FAA contends that attaching a camera to a drone simply does not transform flying that drone into expressive conduct.

But as noted in Part I, the U.S. Supreme Court has “acknowledged that conduct may be sufficiently imbued with elements of communication to fall within the scope” of the First Amendment. In fact, conduct designed to convey a message to an audience is protected under the First Amendment.

Moreover, the First Amendment broadly protects photography and videography as speech that is intended to convey a message. Several courts have reaffirmed that videography and photography—key parts of the speech process and necessary to the distribution of information—qualifies as speech or expressive activity.[1] Accordingly, using drones to capture images and videos with the intention of sharing that message with an audience likely qualifies as speech that is intended to convey a message and is therefore protected under the First Amendment.

The FAA contends that Part 107 passes intermediate scrutiny. Part 107, according to the FAA, addresses aviation safety and does not directly regulate reporting or other expressive activity.

Further, the FAA asserts that anyone seeking to use a small drone for photography or videography in a manner not permitted under Part 107 is free to use another method of photography or videography. For example, a person could use a manned aircraft, film from a tall structure or landmark, film from the ground, or use specialized equipment.

The FAA concludes that because Part 107 is content-neutral and narrowly focused on the substantial government interest of regulating aviation safety, it meets the constitutional standard for an incidental restriction on speech, and enforcement would not implicate the First Amendment.

Time, Place, and Manner Restrictions on Speech in a Public Forum

To begin with, let us tweak our previous premise to assume that flying a drone in a public forum does qualify as speech or an expressive activity—which of course the FAA disputes. As noted in Part I, a constitutionally permitted time, place, or manner restriction on speech occurs when the regulation is 1) content-neutral, 2) narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and 3) leaves open ample alternative channels of communication.

The FAA contends that Part 107 is consistent with the First Amendment as a permissible time, place, or manner restriction on speech for three reasons.

First, the FAA asserts that Part 107 is content-neutral because Part 107 applies equally to all remote pilots of small drones subject to FAA regulation, regardless of content. The regulation “is not being applied because of disagreement with the message presented.” According to the FAA, there is no question as to the content-neutrality of the regulation in Part 107.

Second, the FAA maintains that Part 107 fulfills several legitimate needs, the most important of which is providing the safest, most efficient airspace system in the world. The FAA contends that all the provisions in Part 107 align with that principle. Hence, Part 107 is narrowly tailored to achieve a significant, substantial, and important government interest. Also, the FAA asserts that to discard the Part 107 provisions at issue would conflict with the FAA’s stated mission of providing the safest airspace system in the world.

Lastly, the FAA claims that adequate alternative channels of communication are available for operations that are not allowed under the provisions of Part 107. The FAA notes that a First Amendment analysis does not require that a regulation be the least restrictive means of achieving the government interest, only that there not be a less restrictive alternative that serves the government’s interest as efficiently as the regulation at issue.

The FAA points to the variety of other reporting, photography, and videography tactics that have been used prior to the existence of small drones that continue to be available to this day. For example, the capability to conduct aerial photography and videography using manned aircraft remains unaffected by this rule.

To sum, the FAA contends that Part 107 regulates activity in a nonpublic forum: the NAS. If we assume, for the sake of discussion, that the NAS is a public forum, the FAA contends that the proper framework in which to view the provisions of Part 107 is not under the category of time, place, and manner restrictions, but under the category of incidental restrictions on speech.

The FAA asserts that the flight of a small drone is not speech; it is conduct other than speech which may incidentally restrict speech. Yet the FAA maintains that even if Part 107 were to be analyzed using the more stringent time, place, and manner framework, the provisions of Part 107 would still be consistent with the First Amendment.

The FAA believes that Part 107 does not infringe on First Amendment rights. Yet until challenged and litigated in court, there will continue to be legal ambiguity because several questions linger: is U.S. airspace is a public or nonpublic forum?; does flying a drone qualify as speech or expressive activity under the First Amendment?

Answers to questions like these will help orient courts to determine whether First Amendment rights are being infringed. In addition to Part 107, a litany of existing or proposed state and local laws—intended to address the privacy concerns of citizens and to restrict using drones to capture and share data—may also be vulnerable to First Amendment challenges.

[1] See, e.g., Larsen v. Fort Wayne Police Dep’t, 825 F. Supp. 2d 965, 980 (N.D. Ind. 2010); Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 82-83 (1st Cir. 2011); Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332, 1333 (11th Cir. 2000); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436, 439 (9th Cir. 1995).

Drones have a long history of being used to capture and share data. Beginning in the 1800s enterprising photographers used balloons and kites to lift cameras hundreds of feet into the sky to capture stunning images of American cities. Similarly, in Europe, not only were kites and balloons used to capture aerial shots, photographers’ also affixed cameras to pigeons for wartime surveillance. These early—and archaic—uses of drones show some of the unique benefits drones offer those seeking to capture and share information today.

In 2012, Congress approved the FAA Modernization and Reform Act requiring the FAA to establish comprehensive regulations for flying small drones and integrating them into the National Airspace System (NAS). To that end, in June 2016—over 4 years later—the FAA released its Part 107 rules to regulate commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds. But those rules may be infringing on First Amendment rights, including freedom of the press and the right of individuals to gather information. Many argue that various aspects of Part 107 are unconstitutional because they are not sufficiently narrowly drawn and adequately tailored to respond to the government interest for which they were created to address.

The Part 107 rules that many argue are unconstitutional include the following: 1) the ban on drone flights over populated areas (14 C.F.R. §§ 107.39, 43, 45, 47); 2) the specific airspace restrictions (14 C.F.R. §§ 107.41, 51); 3) the licensing regime for drone operators (14 C.F.R. §§ 107.12, 13); 4) the prohibition on nighttime operations (14 C.F.R. § 107.29(a)); 5) the visual line-of-sight requirements (14 C.F.R. § 107.31); 6) the ban on operating a small drones from a moving vehicle (14 C.F.R. § 107.25); and 7) the ban on simultaneous operation of multiple drones (14 C.F.R. § 107.35).

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The First Amendment

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, in pertinent part, that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This language restricts the government’s ability to constrain citizens’ speech; but it is not absolute. Under certain circumstances, the government can restrict speech.

At first glance, the First Amendment appears to bar only laws that abridge speech. But the First Amendment does not just protect the spoken or written word. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged that conduct may be sufficiently infused with elements of communication to fall within the scope of the First Amendment.

Generally speaking, to qualify for First Amendment protection, a person must show that he or she has a message to be communicated and an audience for that message, notwithstanding the medium through which that message is communicated. In short, conduct designed to convey a message to an audience, such as the use of drones for photography and videography as part of the newsgathering and reporting process, qualifies for First Amendment protections.

The extent to which the Government may restrict speech depends on three things: 1) whether the property or forum is public or nonpublic, 2) the content of the speech, or 3) the manner in which it is regulated.

For purposes of a First Amendment analysis, public property fits into one of three main categories: 1) a public forum, 2) a designated public forum, or (3) a nonpublic forum. Any public property that is neither a public nor a designated public forum is considered a nonpublic forum. Public fora are places “that have traditionally been devoted to expressive activity,” such as public parks, beaches, and sidewalks.

For content-based restrictions of speech in public fora, the U.S. Supreme Court applies a level of review known as “strict scrutiny.” This means that the Court will uphold a content-based restriction only if it is necessary to promote a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means—i.e., narrowly tailored—to further the articulated interest. Strict scrutiny is a difficult standard to meet. Because the government is not constitutionally allowed to favor one type of content or idea by suppressing or otherwise burdening another type of content or idea, a demanding analysis is required.

Non-content based restrictions on speech are less likely than content-based restrictions to violate the First Amendment because the Supreme Court applies an intermediate scrutiny framework—a standard of review less onerous than strict scrutiny. Under intermediate scrutiny, a restriction on speech must advance a “significant,” “substantial,” or “important,” (but not necessarily “compelling”) government interest. And the restriction must be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. Yet it does not, as with content-based restrictions, have to be the least restrictive means to advance the governmental interest.

There are two categories of non-content-based restrictions on speech: (1) incidental restrictions, which are restrictions aimed at conduct other than speech, but which incidentally restrict speech; and (2) time, place, or manner restrictions on speech. To be clear, the courts analyze incidental and time, place, and manner speech restrictions under intermediate scrutiny.

Designated public fora are nonpublic fora that the government affirmatively opens to expressive activity. As with public fora, content-based restrictions on designated public fora must pass strict scrutiny.

Areas not traditionally or explicitly opened to expressive activity are deemed nonpublic fora, which are subject to a more lenient standard of scrutiny. Restrictions on nonpublic fora do not violate the First Amendment as long as the restriction is 1) reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and 2) viewpoint neutral. Examples of nonpublic fora include airport terminals, highway overpass fences, and interstate rest stop areas (including perimeter walkways).

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Is U.S. Airspace a Public or Nonpublic Forum?

Relying on a Ninth Circuit case, Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, Inc. v. City & County of Honolulu, the FAA argues that U.S. airspace is a nonpublic forum. In examining the history and purpose of U.S. airspace, the Ninth Circuit concluded that U.S. airspace does not fit the public forum category because it is not among those places that “have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.”[1] Moreover, the Court noted that “one would be hard pressed to find another forum that has had its access as historically restricted as U.S. airspace.”

A traditional public forum is property that has as “a principal purpose…the free exchange of ideas.” The Ninth Circuit held that in light of the numerous restrictions placed on the use of U.S. airspace, its principal purpose can hardly be characterized as “promoting the free exchange of ideas.” In examining the physical characteristics of the airspace, the Court found that airspace is not an extension of the fora below because airspace is physically separate, requires special equipment and authorization for access, and has never typically been a locus of expressive activity.

For all that, many believe that airspace is a public forum, arguing that the holding in Center for Bio-ethical Reform should be limited to the facts of that case. They contend that Center for Bio-ethical Reform involved manned aircraft flying above 500 feet in altitude; not drones flying below 400 feet. Also, they argue that Center for Bio-ethical Reform does not answer the key question of whether a drone operating just above a public forum—e.g., 50 feet above a public park—should be considered as operating within the public forum.

Whether certain provisions of Part 107 infringe on the First Amendment is a developing topic. In the next post, with the principles discussed above in mind, we will explore and analyze the FAA’s argument that Part 107 is consistent with the First Amendment irrespective of what standard of review applied.

[1] The Ninth Circuit ruled out the possibility of airspace being classified as a designated public forum because the regulated airspace is the antithesis of an “intentional [ ] opening [of] a nontraditional forum for public discourse.”

 

Fox

On May 24, 2016, we published an article discussing the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) issuance of Best Practices for privacy and other issues surrounding drone use. Attached as an Appendix to those Best Practices is a list of guidelines for neighborly drone use intended to be a quick and easy reference guide for recreational drone operators. It goes without saying that for recreational users it is worth reviewing, and is reproduced in its entirety below:

Drones are useful. New, fairly cheap drones are easy to use. But just because they are cheap and simple to fly doesn’t mean the pictures and video they take can’t harm other people. The FAA and partner organizations have put safety guidance online at http://knowbeforeyoufly.org. But even safe flight might not respect other people’s privacy. These are voluntary guidelines. No one is forcing you to obey them. Privacy is hard to define, but it is important. There is a balance between your rights as a drone user and other people’s rights to privacy. That balance isn’t easy to find. You should follow the detailed “UAS Privacy Best Practices”, on which these guidelines are based, especially if you fly drones often, or use them commercially. The overarching principle should be peaceful issue resolution.
  1. If you can, tell other people you’ll be taking pictures or video of them before you do.
  2. If you think someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, don’t violate that privacy by taking pictures, video, or otherwise gathering sensitive data, unless you’ve got a very good reason.
  3. Don’t fly over other people’s private property without permission if you can easily avoid doing so.
  4. Don’t gather personal data for no reason, and don’t keep it for longer than you think you have to.
  5. If you keep sensitive data about other people, secure it against loss or theft.
  6. If someone asks you to delete personal data about him or her that you’ve gathered, do so, unless you’ve got a good reason not to.
  7. If anyone raises privacy, security, or safety concerns with you, try and listen to what they have to say, as long as they’re polite and reasonable about it.
  8. Don’t harass people with your drone.

Drones are a uniquely transformative technology in the commercial and private sectors. Indeed, greater operational flexibility, lower capital requirements, and lower operating costs allow drones to enrich people’s daily lives by providing innovative services, safer infrastructure, recreational uses, and greater economic activity. The assimilation of this technology into everyday life, however, raises concerns for privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.

In recent years drone popularity has soared. According to the FAA there are about 5,600 drones registered for commercial purposes and roughly 450,000 hobbyists who have registered at least one drone. This popularity has put pressure on the drone industry and privacy advocates to reach agreement on guidelines governing drone use.

Seeking to promote the responsible use of drone technology in a way that does not diminish rights and freedoms, President Obama, on February 15, 2015, issued the Presidential Memorandum, “Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”

That memo directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) to establish a multi-stakeholder engagement process—including stakeholders from the private sector—to develop and communicate Best Practices for privacy, accountability, and transparency issues regarding commercial and private drone use in the National Airspace System. And so, on May 18, 2016, the stakeholders came to consensus and issued a document on Best Practices for privacy and other issues surrounding drone use.[1]

Best Practices

The purpose of that document was to outline and describe voluntary Best Practices that drone operators could take to advance drone privacy, transparency, and accountability for the private and commercial use of drones. These Best Practices may be implemented by drone operators in a variety of ways depending on their circumstances and technology uses, and evolving privacy expectations. Yet these Best Practices do not—and are not meant to—create a legal standard of care by which the activities of any particular drone operator should be judged. Nor are the Best Practices intended to serve as a template for future statutory or regulatory obligations—doing so would make these standards mandatory (not voluntary) and could therefore raise First Amendment concerns.

At its core, the Best Practices call for drone users to notify other individuals of drone use and data collecting activities; practice caution when it comes to collecting and storing the data of specific individuals; restrict use and sharing of that data; implement measures to ensure security of covered data[2]; and comply with laws on the use of drones.

These Best Practices focus on data collected via drones, which includes both commercial and non-commercial drones; they do not apply to news gatherers and news reporting organizations or to safety and rescue missions and other emergency response efforts.

In any event, here are the Best Practices in their entirety:

  1. Inform Others of Your Use of Drones
  • (a) Where practicable, drone operators should make a reasonable effort—what qualifies as a practicable and reasonable effort to provide prior notice will depend on operators’ circumstances and the context of the drone operation—to provide prior notice to individuals of the general timeframe and area that they may anticipate a drone intentionally collecting covered data.
  • (b) When a drone operator anticipates that drone use may result in collection of covered data, the operator should provide a privacy policy for such data appropriate to the size and complexity of the operator, or incorporate such a policy into an existing privacy policy. The privacy policy should be in place no later than the time of collection and made publicly available. The policy should include, as practicable:
    • (1) the purposes for which the drone will collect covered data;
    • (2) the kinds of covered data the drone will collect;
    • (3) information regarding any data retention and de-identification practices;
    • (4) examples of the types of any entities with whom covered data will be shared;
    • (5) information on how to submit privacy and security complaints or concerns; and
    • (6) information describing practices in responding to law enforcement requests.
  1. Show Care When Operating Drones or Collecting and Storing Covered Data
  • (a) In the absence of a compelling need to do otherwise, or consent of the data subjects,[3] drone operators should avoid using a drone for the specific purpose of intentionally collecting covered data where the operator knows the data subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
  • (b) In the absence of a compelling need to do otherwise, or consent of the data subjects, drone operators should avoid using a drone for the specific purpose of persistent and continuous collection of covered data about individuals.
  • (c) Where it will not impede the purpose for which the drone is used or conflict with FAA guidelines, drone operators should make a reasonable effort to minimize drone operations over or within private property without consent of the property owner or without appropriate legal authority.
  • (d) Drone operators should make a reasonable effort to avoid knowingly retaining covered data longer than reasonably necessary to fulfill a purpose as outlined in § 1(b). With the consent of the data subject, or in exceptional circumstances (such as legal disputes or safety incidents), such data may be held for a longer period.
  • (e) Drone operators should establish a process, appropriate to the size and complexity of the operator, for receiving privacy or security concerns, including requests to delete, de-identify, or obfuscate the data subject’s covered data. Commercial operators should make this process easily accessible to the public, such as by placing points of contact on a company website.

  1. Limit the Use and Sharing of Covered Data
  • (a) Drone operators should not use covered data for the following purposes without consent: employment eligibility, promotion, or retention; credit eligibility; or health care treatment eligibility other than when expressly permitted by and subject to the requirements of a sector-specific regulatory framework.
  • (b) Drone operators should make a reasonable effort to avoid using or sharing covered data for any purpose that is not included in the privacy policy covering drone data.
  • (c) If publicly disclosing covered data is not necessary to fulfill the purpose for which the drone is used, drone operators should avoid knowingly publicly disclosing data collected via drone until the operator has undertaken a reasonable effort to obfuscate or de-identify covered data —unless the data subjects provide consent to the disclosure.
  • (d) Drone operators should make a reasonable effort to avoid using or sharing covered data for marketing purposes unless the data subject provides consent to the use or disclosure. There is no restriction on the use or sharing of aggregated covered data as an input (e.g., statistical information) for broader marketing campaigns.
  1. Secure Covered Data
  • (a) Drone operators should take measures to manage security risks of covered data by implementing a program that contains reasonable administrative, technical, and physical safeguards appropriate to the operator’s size and complexity, the nature and scope of its activities, and the sensitivity of the covered data.
  • (b) Examples of appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards include those described in guidance from the Federal Trade Commission, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework, and the International Organization for Standardization’s 27001 standard for information security management.
  • (c) For example, drone operators engaging in commercial activity should consider taking the following actions to secure covered data:
    • Having a written security policy with respect to the collection, use, storage, and dissemination of covered data appropriate to the size and complexity of the operator and the sensitivity of the data collected and retained.
    • Making a reasonable effort to regularly monitor systems for breach and data security risks.
    • Making a reasonable effort to provide security training to employees with access to covered data.
    • Making a reasonable effort to permit only authorized individuals to access covered data.
  1. Monitor and Comply with Evolving Federal, State, and Local Drone Laws
  • Drone operators should ensure compliance with evolving applicable laws and regulations and drone operators’ own privacy and security policies through appropriate internal processes.

These Best Practices are at present voluntary, however, they may end up as rules that commercial and non-commercial drone operators will have to follow in the future. Indeed, the U.S. Senate has asked the NTIA for a set of privacy guidelines that could serve as the basis for further federal legislation. See FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016, Sec. 2101. With all the news stories about irresponsible individuals using drones for illegal activities or violating people’s privacy, the existence of these Best Practices could be legal fodder for anyone who wants to prosecute you or your company for drone activities. Do yourself or your company a favor, take the initiative and start applying these guidelines today.

Endnotes:

[1] The stakeholders that support this Best Practices document include: Amazon, AUVSI, Center for Democracy and Technology, Consumer Technology Association, CTIA, Future of Privacy Forum, New America’s Open Technology Institute, PrecisionHawk, X (Formerly Google [x]), Small UAV Coalition, Online Trust Association, News Media Coalition, Newspaper Association of America, National Association of Broadcasters, Radio Television Digital News Association, Digital Content Next, Software & Information Industry Association, NetChoice.

[2] “Covered data” means information collected by a drone that identifies a particular person. If data collected by a drone likely will not be linked to an individual’s name or other personally identifiable information, or if the data is altered so that a specific person is not recognizable, it is not covered data.

[3] The term “data subjects” refers to the individuals about whom covered data is collected.

Federal versus State

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The quote above aptly describes the present legal landscape surrounding drones. Drone technology and popularity continues to skyrocket. But as numerous state and local laws regulating drones conflict with both the FAA’s contention that it controls the airspace and the FAA’s desire to establish a single national policy for drones, the legal and regulatory framework in the U.S. remains murky.

The FAA’s authority to regulate airspace, noise control, and safety is not questioned. Indeed, any attempt by states to regulate those aviation subfields will be deemed preempted. Despite this, many argue that “the FAA’s authority over safety still leaves a lot of room for states to act, and they have.” Furthermore, whether that authority extends to issues like privacy is questionable.

This is a world of action, and not for moping and droning in.”

– Charles Dickens

State and local governments have enacted hundreds of statutes and ordinances that seek to regulate drones. Those statutes and ordinances have created a patchwork of varying laws and regulations affecting drone operations.

 “I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.”

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House

In an effort to clarify the responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments with respect to the regulation of drones, Senator John Thune recently introduced “Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016” (the “FRA”) in the U.S. Senate.

Section 2142(a) of the FRA would establish a federal preemption for state and local laws relating to the design, manufacture, testing, licensing, registration, certification, operation, or maintenance of a drone, including airspace, altitude, flight paths, equipment or technology requirements, purpose of operations, and pilot, operator, and observer qualifications, training, and certification.

However, under Section 2142(b), state or local laws (including common law causes of action) relating to nuisance, voyeurism, harassment, reckless endangerment, wrongful death, personal injury, property damage, or other illegal acts arising from the use of drones would not be preempted if they are not specifically related to the use of a drone.

Express preemption occurs when Congress has explicitly stated that state law will be preempted by the enactment of federal law or regulation. The FRA is a bold and important proposal because only two other instances of express preemption exist regarding aviation: (1) Congress has expressly asserted “exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States,” and has placed “exclusive authority for regulating the airspace above the United States with the [FAA]” and (2) Under the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, Congress prohibited states from enacting laws “related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier that may provide air transportation.”

Charles Dickens 1

“‘Do you spell it with a ‘V’ or a ‘W,’ inquired the judge? That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my Lord.”

– Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

The FRA is Congress’ attempt to establish a single national policy for drones by explicitly granting the FAA supremacy over all laws seeking to regulate drone operations. But many argue that it “would also block local governments from adopting measures prohibiting encroachment on private property.”

The patchwork of laws whereby federal, state, and local governments all seek to regulate drone operations creates a Byzantine scheme that only inhibits the growth of the drone industry. It is unnecessary for state or local governments to enact drone specific legislation, as existing state or local laws already cover the areas delineated in Section 2142(b) of the FRA.

Bewildered and fatigued, he lay there underneath the extirpated munitions shed. The mound of rubble around him blackened and scarred, swirled with smoke. The blast from the RPG had rattled him, but as he struggled to gain his composure, he was greeted with a heightened sense of his surroundings and an uncanny calmness. A cool breeze kissed his face as grains of sand tumbled over him. The air carried the cacophonous bellows of artillery shells from far away, but it was the bantering of footsteps over loose, crumbling, gravel that created a sense of terror. Through the cracks in the debris, the enemy could be seen plodding through the wreckage, searching for weapons and survivors. Clutched to his chest, a grenade was held tightly with the pin half drawn out. As he closed his eyes, he took a deep breath and began to pray.

The hero described above is the recipient of the Purple Heart and to this day still performs his duty as an officer in the U.S. Army. Getta’s story is one of courage, inspiration, and hope. The compromising position that Getta was forced into was due to a lack of knowledge as to where the enemy encampment was located.

The integration of drone technology into the theater of war has enabled the US military to conduct ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) missions and strike capabilities from afar, providing information superiority and real-time situational knowledge without putting service men and women in harm’s way. As drone technology has evolved and has exhibited its military usefulness, the potential for domestic use remains largely unexplored.

With its untapped potential, drone technology has expanded beyond military applications and is now being primed for commercial and recreational use. As the technology continues to become cheaper and more accessible, the insatiable call for drone technology has increased and has led to the demand for drone operators, engineers, and ground station personnel. Several studies have shown that the integration of drone technology into U.S. airspace could create more than 100,000 high-paying jobs and provide more than $82 billion to the nation’s economy over the next decade.

Drone Operator and Engineer

In the private sector, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing are offering drone operators and engineers annual salaries in excess of $100,000 and Amazon is ready to use drones to deliver packages straight to consumer’s homes. Anticipating the commercial demand for drone training, educational institutions around the country are “offering degrees and certificates on piloting, engineering, and repairing drones.”

While the demand for commercial use of drone technology remains high, the lack of regulatory guidance has inhibited its explosive potential. However, it is anticipated that the FAA will release regulations later this year that will allow for much broader commercial use. As operational guidance and regulations are put in place, operators using drones for commercial purposes will likely be required by the FAA to obtain certification of training or competence.

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As the laws and regulations related to commercial drone use gain clarity, the demand for drone technology and those who operate them will experience growth. Despite the presence and guidance of Amelia Earhart, Rosie the Riveter, and other females, aviation has historically been a male dominated field. Fortunately, as society has progressed, females have become more involved in aviation. The next generation of “flyboys” and “flygirls” are here to stay.

As the popularity of drone use continues to increase, it directly impacts the privacy and safety of those at the ground level. In a recent case, Boggs v. Merideth, a drone operator sued his neighbor for shooting down his drone. As a result, several issues pertaining to the boundaries of “navigable airspace” and how that airspace interacts with the state property rights of landowners may be clarified.

The federal government has exclusive sovereignty of U.S. airspace. Congress delegated to the FAA the ability to define “navigable airspace” and the authority to regulate “navigable airspace” of aircraft by regulation or order. 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(1). While it is clear that navigable airspace falls under the purview of the FAA, the boundaries of that airspace remain unclear.

According to Federal Aviation Regulations, “navigable airspace” is defined as “airspace at and above the minimum flight altitudes prescribed by or under this chapter, including airspace needed for safe takeoff and landing.” 14 C.F.R. § 1.1. For airplanes, the minimum flight altitude while flying over congested areas or open air assemblies of persons is 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet. 14 C.F.R. § 91.119(b).

Drone Laws

Over uncongested areas, airplanes can operate at an altitude of 500 feet above the surface. However, airplanes can operate even lower when over “open water or sparsely populated areas.” When flying over those areas, aircraft may not operate closer than 500 feet to any person, vehicle, or structure provided that if the airplane’s engines fail, an emergency landing will not create an undue hazard. 14 C.F.R. § 91.119(a) and (c). Two exceptions exist for when a person may operate an aircraft below these altitudes: (1) when necessary for takeoff or landing; or (2) in an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action. 14 C.F.R. § 91.119(a)14 C.F.R. § 91.3(b)[1]

In United States v. Causby, the Supreme Court of the United States in 1946 provided guidance on where private property rights of airspace end and navigable airspace begins. In Causby, a farmer lived adjacent to a military airport where aircraft flew as low as 83 feet over the farmer’s property. As a result, the noise from the aircraft startled the farmer’s chickens, causing them to kill themselves by flying into walls.

Causby

Since the navigable airspace which Congress had placed in the public domain was airspace above what was deemed the minimum safe altitude (“MSA”), the Supreme Court reasoned that airspace above the MSA was immune from suits against the government for a takings violation.

The Causby Court put forth two key principles regarding airspace below the MSA. First, landowners have “exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere.” Second, landowners own at least as much of the space above the ground as they can occupy or use in connection with the land.

While it appears that the lowest “navigable airspace” could descend to is just over the Causby limits, the circumstances of the case may limit its applicability. Causby took place during World War II. It involved large military aircraft flying 83 feet above the farmer’s property. The unsettling noise resulted in the destruction of the use of the property as a commercial chicken farm and caused the farmer’s family severe anxiety from the lack of sleep. In contrast, drones are typically not noisy or earsplitting, and often fly well below 83 feet. Further, drone technology did not exist when Causby was decided 70 years ago.

The Court ruled in favor of the farmer. However, several questions linger including “where the precise boundaries of public airspace above the farm meet the immediate reaches of the farmer’s property” and how high state government’s rights extend. [2]

In other words, would the Court in Causby have ruled in favor of the farmer if the aircraft at issue operated above 90 feet or perhaps 150 feet? The Causby decision does not clarify what happens between 83 feet and 500 feet. Moreover, it is unclear if the Court would have found a taking if the property was vacant and the aircraft caused no damage to the farmer or his property.

The FAA has divided airspace into different categories based on altitude. Class G airspace is defined from the Causby limits to 500 feet and is considered uncontrolled airspace. This begs the question, does “navigable airspace” include class G airspace and if not, does the FAA have the authority to regulate the airspace below?

The FAA argues that it “has authority to regulate aircraft in U.S. Airspace” at any altitude because Federal law states that the FAA “shall develop plans and policy for the use of the navigable airspace and assign by regulation or order the use of the airspace necessary to ensure the safety of aircraft and the efficient use of airspace. 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(1).

Furthermore, it could be argued that the FAA can regulate airspace below 500 feet despite jurisdictional limitations because another federal law gives the FAA the authority to prescribe “regulations and minimum standards for other practices, methods and procedure the [FAA] finds necessary for safety in air commerce and national security.” 49 U.S.C. § 44701(a). Under this section, the FAA regulates amateur rockets, motorized paragliders, and other vehicles below 500 feet.

Even if navigable airspace does not extend to the surface, the FAA has argued that it may regulate below navigable airspace because it can prescribe regulations “on the flight of aircraft for navigating, protecting, and identifying aircraft” and “protecting individuals and property on the ground.” 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(2).

As a result of increased drone technology and use, it could be that “navigable airspace” extends to the surface. At the moment, the area below “navigable airspace” is a gray jurisdictional area for the FAA to attempt to regulate and states continue to argue that they should be able to regulate flight below 500 feet through their traditional police powers. Boggs v. Merideth may provide answers to whether a drone flying below 500 feet is operating in “navigable airspace.”

As the case progresses, we will continue to monitor and provide updates of any developments.


[1] Minimum safe altitudes for helicopters differ from other aircraft. Specifically, “If the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface . . . . A helicopter may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed [for fixed wing aircraft], provided each person operating the helicopter complies with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the FAA.” 14 C.F.R. § 91.119(d)(1).

[2] Jonathan Rupprecht, Drones: Their Many Civilian Uses and the U.S. Laws Surrounding Them, at 24-25, (Version 2.03) (2015).

One hundred and sixty-eight bills restricting drones were passed in forty-five states in 2015. Whether these bills have or will be preempted by FAA laws and regulations is an emerging issue. In Part I, we discussed the constitutional concept of preemption and how courts determine when it applies. In this discussion, we will apply those principles to an actual state law.

Early last year, the Nevada legislature passed Assembly Bill (“AB”) 239, which has numerous provisions regulating the operators of drones. Section 18 of the bill states “A person shall not weaponize an unmanned aerial vehicle or operate a weaponized unmanned aerial vehicle.” Is it subject to preemption?

In a report released December 17, 2015, the FAA specifically noted examples of laws within the states’ police power and not subject to federal regulation, which include prohibitions on attaching weapons to drones. Therefore, Section 18 may not be subject to preemption.

Weaponized Drone
Copyright: mipan / 123RF Stock Photo

On the other hand, Section 18 is susceptible to field preemption under the subfield of aviation safety because its purpose demonstrates a concern for the safety of citizens and property. The FAA has the sole responsibility “to regulate navigable airspace to ensure its safe use.” Furthermore, the second part of the statute states “A person shall not…operate a weaponized unmanned aerial vehicle.” That part, as opposed to the first portion of the statute which simply prohibits weaponizing drones, seems to regulate or at the very least affect the operation of the drone itself which is the responsibility of the FAA. As a result, Section 18 may not survive a challenge.

From a practical perspective however, that section may never be challenged as it does not conflict with federal law. If the statute authorized the converse, i.e., permitted drone operators to weaponize drones, then it would certainly be preempted.

Also vulnerable to preemption is Section 18.5 of AB 239. It states, “A person shall not operate an unmanned aerial vehicle within: (a) A horizontal distance of 500 feet or a vertical distance of 250 feet from a critical facility without the written consent of the owner of the critical facility.” This is arguably an operational ban and directly restricts drone operation, flight altitude, and flight paths. More importantly, a court would likely characterize the law as a regulation of safety which is a subfield within aviation that seems to have been absorbed by federal law and regulations. Therefore, it would likely be preempted.

Section 19 of AB 239 allows property owners to sue drone operators for trespass if, (1) a drone has flown at a height of less than 250 feet above the owner’s property at least once; (2) the property owner has told the drone operator that he/she does not consent to the drone flying over his/her property; and (3) the drone operator then flies the drone less than 250 feet above the property again.

However, a person cannot sue for trespass under Section 19 if, (1) the drone is lawfully in the flight path for landing at an airport, airfield, or runway; (2) the drone is taking off or landing; or (3) the drone operator is licensed to operate the drone by the FAA and the drone does not unreasonably interfere with the existing use of the real property.

Section 19 concerns privacy and trespass, and falls within state police powers not generally subject to FAA regulation. Additionally, any threat of preemption may be mitigated by the exceptions which allow FAA integration of drones into U.S. airspace while addressing the concerns of unlawful trespass and surveillance.

On the other hand, Section 19 directly addresses drone flight. As previously discussed, the FAA considers any operational drone restrictions on flight altitude, flight paths, or navigable airspace by states to be an encroachment on their authority. As a result, state regulation of overflight will be rigorously scrutinized by federal courts, increasing the likelihood of preemption.

From a policy standpoint, the FAA argues that substantial air safety issues are raised when state governments attempt to regulate the operation or flight of aircraft. If multiple states pass different laws regulating navigable airspace, fractionalized control of the navigable airspace could result. From the FAA’s perspective, a navigable airspace free from inconsistent state restrictions is necessary to the maintenance of a safe air transportation system.

As noted by President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Brian Wynne, legislation recently proposed at the state level may conflict with federal jurisdiction resulting in “a complicated patchwork of laws and ordinances” causing confusion about where commercial UAS operators could fly.

While certain provisions of AB 239 as well as laws enacted by various other states are susceptible to preemption, until challenged and litigated in court (or repealed by the legislature), there will continue to be legal ambiguity. What is clear is that the breadth and pervasiveness of the forthcoming Federal drone regulations will greatly influence the degree and scope of preemption.

The surge in drone technology has the potential to bring added business and jobs to states that welcome this burgeoning new industry. State lawmakers must exercise caution in enacting laws affecting drones so as to not alienate the drone industry by passing reactionary, burdensome, and restrictive legislation that will prevent new businesses and jobs from being created.

In Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, a wise Jedi famously noted "fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
“Fear is the path to the dark side.” Yoda, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. (Image Copyright: alantunnicliffe / 123RF Stock Photo)

Instead, state lawmakers need to strike a balance that allows the use of drones for commercial and recreational use while addressing citizen concerns. Those concerns should be addressed through a cautious and thoughtful approach and consideration before enacting laws that affect drone operations as courts will examine the text of the statutes involved, as well as the purposes and concerns addressed by the statute.