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Perspective: Privacy concerns could keep Amazon delivery drones grounded

Jaikumar Vijayan | Dec. 9, 2013
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.


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