NTIA Launches Drone Privacy Effort

The Obama Administration Monday is launching its latest effort to generate voluntary privacy, transparency and accountability best practices for emerging and burgeoning technologies, in this case for information collected during commercial use of unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones.

That comes at the direction of President Obama as the administration comes up with rules and practices for federal and commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The President issued a memorandum directing NTIA to come up with privacy best practices.

It also comes in the form of the first drone privacy stakeholder meeting, convened by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in Washington. John Verdi, director of privacy initiatives for NTIA, pointed out that the goal of that first meeting was to start a discussion among a diverse group of stakeholders, including developing working methods, priorities, how to structure meetings, and next steps.

NTIA is not looking for enforceable codes of conduct, said John Morris, director of Internet policy, in the NTIA Office of Policy Analysis and Development, but instead best practices, which he said is due to the nascent nature of the UAV technology.

NTIA deputy assistant secretary Angela Simpson, speaking at the meeting, emphasized that NTIA's role was to help stakeholders come up with guidelines, not to impose them. "We are not regulators," she said. "We are not developing rules or bringing enforcement actions."

Simpson said that if the stakeholders can come together collegially to agree on "common sense best practices" it will be a "major boon" to the growth of UAVs.

Carl Szabo, policy counsel for NetChoice, asked how the FAA would incorporate any best practices in its ongoing drone rulemaking process.

A Department of Transportation representative said that neither FAA nor DOT had specific statutory oversight of privacy, so they would not be enforcing best practices.

Verdi said that he did not expect the best practices being enforced by either, or necessarily even being adopted formally by stakeholders, but rather they would be used to "inform" the rollout and development of the technology.

Earlier efforts at coming up with facial recognition and mobile app privacy regimes—which were targeted at enforceable codes of conduct—have been met with resistance from some privacy groups that questioned whether sufficiently tough guidelines could emerge from that multistakeholder process.

But other stakeholders, including broadcasters, have weighed in with suggested areas of discussion and debate and committed to the process. The Future of Privacy Forum was represented at the meeting, as was the Center for Democracy and Technology.  Asked by a caller if NTIA would provide a list of stakeholders, Verdi said NTIA did not compile that, but would send out a summary of the meeting afterwards. He also pointed out that everyone who speaks at the meeting is asked to identify themselves.

Harley Geiger, advocacy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the groups that walked out of the facial recognition stakeholder process, said it had made that move because the process had become polarized between privacy groups who wanted overregulation and lobbyists who wanted no regs and that he wanted NTIA to avoid that kind of polarization this time around.

Geiger said one way to do that would be to establish a charter with goals, timelines and hoped-for end results. Szabo signaled he was not sure that was needed.

The National Association of Broadcasters early on said it was "fully committed" to participating in the NTIA-convened multistakeholder process, though it said it expected the process to be "an important opportunity to reassure the public of the news industry’s longstanding commitment to consumer privacy."

The general tenor of the comments from NAB; news outlets including TV stations, networks and major newspapers; and the Motion Picture Association of America, was that while they support the process, existing laws and regulations and the good conduct of their members will do most of the heavy lifting on privacy protections for the new technology.

The strongest critic of the process is the Center for Digital Democracy, which back in April was already signaling its lack of confidence in the process.

NTIA has tentatively set future drone privacy meetings for Sept. 24, Oct. 21, and Nov. 20.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.