NTIA Launches Drone Privacy Effort

Agency’s Goal Is Best Practices, Not Enforceable Conduct Codes

WASHINGTON — The Obama Administration on Monday (Aug. 3) launched its latest effort to generate voluntary privacy, transparency and accountability best practices for emerging technologies, in this case for information collected during commercial use of unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) or 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. Obama issued a memorandum directing the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to come up with privacy best practices.

It also comes in the form of the first drone privacy stakeholder meeting, convened by the NTIA in Washington, D.C. The goal of that first meeting is to start a discussion involving a diverse stakeholder group, including the development of working methods, priorities, how to structure meeting and next steps, NTIA director of privacy initiatives John Verdi said.

The NTIA is lot looking for codes of conduct that are Federal Trade Commission-enforceable, John Morris, director of Internet policy in the NTIA’s Office of Policy Analysis and Development, said. Rather, given the nascent nature of UAV technology, it is looking for best practices, he said.

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

If the stakeholders can come together collegially to agree on “common-sense best practices” it will be a “major boon” to the growth of drone use, she said.

Carl Szabo, policy counsel for Net Choice, asked how the Federal Aviation Administration would incorporate any best practices in its ongoing drone rulemaking process.

A Department of Transportation representative said that neither the FAA nor the DOT had specific statutory oversight of privacy, so neither agency would be enforcing best practices.

Neither agency is expected to enforce the best practices, nor will stakeholders even necessarily adopt them, Verdi said. Rather, they will be used to "inform" the rollout and development of the technology, he said.

Earlier efforts at coming up with facial recognition and mobile app privacy regimes — which were targeted at enforceable codes of conduct — have met with resistance from some privacy groups who questioned whether sufficiently tough guidelines could emerge from a multi-stakeholder 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 the NTIA would provide a list of stakeholders, Verdi said NTIA does not compile such a list, but will release a summary of the meeting afterwards. Everyone who speaks at the meeting is asked to identify themselves, he noted.

The National Association of Broadcasters early on said it was "fully committed" to participating in the NTIA-convened multi-stakeholder 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 had already signaled its lack of confidence in the process.

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