EPIC v. Department of Transportation - Drone Registration Task Force

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Background

On October 19, 2015, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta announced the implementation of a federal drone registry for civilian drones weighing under 55 pounds. The same day, Secretary Foxx and Administrator Huerta announced the creation of a Drone Registration Task Force to develop recommendations for the drone registration process. The Task Force was convened to “advise the Department on which aircraft should be exempt from registration due to a low safety risk” and “explore options for a streamlined system that would make registration less burdensome for commercial UAS operators.” According to Secretary Foxx, the proposed registration requirement will facilitate safer UAS operations by increasing operator accountability.

Under its charter, the Drone Registration Task Force was charged with: (1) developing and recommending minimum requirements for drones that would need to be registered, (2) developing and recommending registration processes, and (3) developing and recommending methods for proving registration and marking. The Task Force report was due on November 20, 2015 and was released on November 23, 2015.

The FAA released the Task Force membership list on October 29, 2015. The 26-member group was chaired by Earl Lawrence, Director of the FAA's UAS Integration Office, and Dave Vos of Google X. Notably, the Task Force did not include any organizations addressing the privacy and civil liberties implications of increased drone operations in the United States. The other members were:

  • Nancy Egan - 3D Robotics
  • Richard Hanson - Academy of Model Aeronautics
  • George Novak - Aerospace Industries Association
  • Chuck Hogeman and Randy Kenagy - Air Line Pilots Association
  • Jim Coon - Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
  • Sean Cassidy - Amazon Prime Air
  • Ben Gielow-Amazon Retail
  • Justin Towles - American Association of Airport Executives
  • Brian Wynne - Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International
  • Parker Brugge - Best Buy
  • Douglas Johnson - Consumer Electronics Association
  • Brendan Schulman - DJI
  • Paul Feldman - General Aviation Manufacturers Association
  • Tony Bates - GoPro
  • Matt Zuccaro - Helicopter Association International
  • Mike Fergus - International Association of Chiefs of Police
  • John Perry - Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors
  • Brandon Declet - Measure
  • Randall Burdett - National Association of State Aviation Officials
  • Sarah Wolf - National Business Aviation Association
  • Baptiste Tripard - Parrot
  • Tyler Collins - PrecisionHawk
  • Gregory McNeal - Small UAV Coalition
  • Thomas Head - Walmart

Along with DOT and FAA, a number of federal agencies provided “expert support” to the Task Force, including the Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior, Office of Management and Budget, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of State.

The Task Force met formally from November 3 to November 5, 2015. The FAA created the Task Force as an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), which is a FAA committee "formed on an ad hoc basis, for a specific purpose, and are typically of limited duration" to provide information, advice, and recommendations to the FAA. By statute, ARCs are not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which requires that advisory committee meetings be open to the public. As a result, the Task Force's formal meetings are at an undisclosed location and by invitation only. EPIC submitted a FOIA request for the minutes, presentations, and other documents related to the November 3-5 formal meeting.

The FAA accepted public comments on the drone registration process. In particular, the Task Force asked for "requests information and recommendations regarding what information and registration platform would be appropriate for [drone] registration and ways to minimize the burden to the regulated community" as well as comments on which drones "based on their weight or performance capabilities, warrant a continued exercise of discretion with respect to requiring registration because of the negligible risk they pose to the national airspace system." Comments were due by November 20, 2015, but the FAA requested submission by November 6, 2015.

EPIC submitted comments to the Drone Registration Task Force on November 12, 2015. In summary, EPIC's comments stated that: (1) EPIC supports the drone registration requirement; (2) EPIC recommends that drone registration information should be broadcast while drones are operating; (3) EPIC recommends drone registration requirements that detail each drone’s capabilities for surveillance, including data collection and data storage; (4) EPIC does not support exemption for any drone that transits in the national airspace system; and (5) EPIC recommends limits on the use and disclosure of personal information obtained for drone registration.

The Task Force report was released on November 23, 2015. The FAA released its interim final rule for small drone registration on December 14, 2015.

EPIC’s Interest

EPIC has a particular interest in the privacy issues raised by ubiquitous drone use. It is imperative that the public is afforded a reasonable opportunity to participate in the discourse surrounding, and ultimately informing the Task Force’s final report and recommendations.

There are ongoing concerns about how drones affect the privacy rights of the average citizen and how a reasonable expectation of privacy can be hindered by the presence of drones. Congress, the President, and an increasing number of states have all recognized the need for substantial privacy protections to accompany increased drone usage. Drones have been implicated in several privacy scares in the past two years, and citizens are increasingly discussing how they can protect themselves from unwanted drone surveillance.

EPIC has a long history defending against intrusive surveillance programs. On February 24, 2012, EPIC, joined by over 100 organizations, experts, and members of the public, submitted a petition to the FAA requesting a notice and comment rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act on the privacy impact of drones. The petition pointed out that the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (signed on February 14, 2012) provides an opportunity for the Agency to address the privacy questions raised by drone usage. On July 13, 2012, EPIC's Amie Stepanovich testified in front of the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, stating "there are substantial legal and constitutional issues involved in the deployment of aerial drones by federal agencies that need to be addressed."

In 2008, EPIC launched Observing Surveillance, a project that documented the surge in the number of video cameras placed in DC's public spaces. EPIC's Executive Director, Marc Rotenberg, appeared before the DC City Council to support efforts to suspend an expensive and invasive system of 5,200 surveillance cameras in the nation's capitol. In 2011, EPIC fought to attract attention to the FAST Project, DHS' public testing of a new sensor array used to conduct covert surveillance of individuals who are not suspected of any crime. Additionally, EPIC works to protect location privacy against government monitoring in many ways, including filing a "friend of the court" brief in U.S. v. Jones, urging the Court to find warrantless GPS tracking device by the police unconstitutional.

In 2005, EPIC first publicized the impact that drones have on Privacy, specifically in the area of border surveillance. EPIC explained, "the use of UAVs gives the federal government a new capability to monitor citizens clandestinely, while the effectiveness of the expensive, crash-prone surveillance planes in border patrol operations has not been proved."

EPIC has advocated for increased transparency in the Drone Registration Task Force. Two days after the FAA announced the creation of the Task Force, EPIC filed an expedited Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the Task Force membership list. Several days later, EPIC urged Secretary Foxx and Administrator Huerta to release the membership list to the public.

EPIC Freedom of Information Act Request

On November 6, 2015, EPIC submitted a FOIA request seeking:

  • All documents related to the November 3-5, 2015 Task Force meeting, including, but not limited to, meeting minutes, paper or electronic handouts, and presentations.

Freedom of Information Act Documents

  • Documents Produced
  • Legal Documents (EPIC v. DOT, Case No. 16-634)

  • EPIC's Complaint (April 4, 2016)
  • News Items

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