An Indian casino and the U.S. State Department appear on a new list of drone license applicants uncovered through a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration.
Organizations must currently apply for an FAA license to fly robotic drones over the U.S. homeland. The nonprofit digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been using lawsuits to get the FAA to release information about drone license applicants, so that Americans can begin thinking about privacy issues and considering legal privacy protections.
"The vehicles are getting smaller and more nimble, meaning they could soon maneuver into all sorts of spaces we normally consider private," said Rebecca Jeschke, digital rights analyst at EFF. "And with the advances in cheap, sensitive and small video cameras — not to mention the availability of cheap storage — video that's collected could be around a long time."
The EFF counts 81 public entities that have applied for authorization to fly a drone prior to October 2012. Such entities include different branches of the U.S. military that have tested battlefield drones over the homeland — sometimes by practicing their tracking techniques on cars driving on U.S. highways.
But the list also includes local civilian entities such as state agencies, colleges and police departments. New drone license applicants on the list include: Canyon County Sheriff’s Office (Idaho); Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office (Northwest Oregon); Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department (North Dakota); King County Sheriff’s Office (covering Seattle).
Several Ohio entities on the updated list include the Medina County Sheriff’s Office, Lorain County Community College and Sinclair Community College. The Ohio Department of Transportation also applied for a drone license — perhaps to study how drones could help monitor highway traffic conditions and inspect bridges for maintenance.
Perhaps the most unusual drone license applicant on the updated list is the Barona Band of Mission Indians Risk Management Office located near San Diego.
The U.S. State Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) stand out as the newest drone license applicants on the federal level.
Much remains unknown about what drone license applicants want to do with their authorization to fly drones over the U.S. homeland. The FAA primarily looks at safety requirements rather than possible privacy issues related to the drones — but that could change with the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, introduced by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. last year.
The FAA has only released about half of the information requested by the EFF under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in October 2012. The EFF hopes that the FAA can eventually begin making such records public and available in a timely manner so that Americans can better track the electronic eyes watching them from the skies above.
A second lawsuit by EFF aims to find out how U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses Predator drones to patrol the borders or as loans to other law enforcement agencies.
"We've only received a small fraction of the records responsive to both lawsuits so far," said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at EFF. "Hopefully, the FAA will find a way to release this information to the public on a regular basis on its own without EFF having to file more lawsuits."
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