AUVSI: Privacy concerns should inform, but not stop, UAS use - experts

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Unmanned systems, particularly aircraft, are being challenged in the court of public opinion over privacy concerns before their benefits have been understood, two analysts said in an AUVSI webinar focused on privacy.

"We all know about the privacy issues but we haven't seen the benefits," said John Villasenor of The Brookings Institution, during a webinar that previewed Wednesday's privacy panel.

People fear a sky full of buzzing UAS a few years from now, but that will not be the case, he said. It will take some time, more than two or three years but less than a decade, but "I think people will, in the end, realize that it's really going to be okay."

When people first got cell phones and smartphones, they understood the benefits right away and only later contemplated the privacy downside, namely that smartphones show their users' location all the time, he said. That same benefit from UAS has not been made clear because they are not in widespread use.

"I think that will hopefully change when there are events where UAVs play a key role, such as by saving a police officer's life," he said.

Matt Henshon of Henshon Parker LLP, who co-chairs the AI and Robotics Committee of the American Bar Association Section of Science & Technology Law, said that would hold true of driverless car technology as well.

"On the one hand, the efficiency and the strengths of some of these technologies will be tremendous, however, we are going to have to have an accelerated view of what our core privacy rights will be and how they should be protected."

The Supreme Court has not settled all the issues related to tracking vehicles. For instance, in a recent case, it concluded that attaching a GPS to a car without a warrant is not permissible, but otherwise "took the easy way out" by not ruling on GPS tracking in general.

Privacy rights will need to be reviewed periodically as technology continues to improve, such as when cameras get better and better with each generation, the speakers agreed. If privacy laws had been written when the Internet first became popular with consumers in the mid-1990s, they would have completely missed the later rise of social technology, for instance.

The unmanned systems industry should also be forthcoming about addressing privacy concerns, Henshon and Villasenor said. Henshon cited the instance where TiVo reported the number of people who watched the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl. TiVo had randomized the identities of the viewers but did not make that clear at first, giving itself a privacy headache.

Villasenor and Henshon agreed that there is a danger that the unmanned systems industry could be over-regulated based on concerns about privacy.

"This is a global enterprise and a global industry," Villasenor said. "If the US takes itself out of the game, there are other countries that are going to simply take up that slack."

Villasenor and Henshon will take part in a panel discussion, "Getting in Front of the Issue: A Discussion on Unmanned Systems and Privacy" on Wednesday, 8 August, in the Panel Session Room of Mandalay Bay D.