'Voluntary' NTIA Drone Best Practices Likely to Shape Federal Law

NEWS ANALYSIS: New drone guidelines from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration are intended to help protect the public's privacy while engaging in drone use, but the guidelines are voluntary.

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The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has released a set of what the agency calls voluntary best practices for unmanned aircraft system privacy, transparency and accountability.

The guidelines are the result of a White House memo that directed the agency to develop a set of privacy standards for drone use. The best practices document is divided into two parts, the actual document and an appendix that summarizes the jargon-filled best practices document.

The best practices are basically a set of rules that boil down to not using information gathered by drones (primarily images) of what the document calls "data subjects" (people) without their permission and making sure to protect that information in a manner similar to how companies currently protect other consumer information. This means, among other things, not retaining that information any longer than necessary.

What's notable in the main document is that there are as many disclaimers as there are best practices. The voluntary rules are filled with phrases like "where possible" while also pointing out that it does not give drone users any cover for violating existing laws and regulations.

In addition, the document exempts the news media from those suggested rules because, of course, that might infringe on First Amendment freedoms.

The best practices also intend to provide guidance to drone users to be considerate of the people who might be affected by drones, even if they're not the subjects of any imaging. Those practices include telling people that you'll be using a drone and what you intend to do with it.

Drone pilots should also be aware when people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, which should be honored "where possible," as should their property rights. Thus, you shouldn't fly a drone over someone else's property without permission, "where possible."

The practices also suggest that you listen to their privacy concerns as long as they're polite about it, and that you shouldn't harass people with your drone activity.

At this point, everything is voluntary, and the NTIA couches it all in language that almost goes overboard with those equivocations to the point that it's clear that the agency isn't interested in controlling or mandating anything—and they aren't. The NTIA, which is part of the Department of Commerce, has no legal basis to issue drone rules. It's clear that the agency issued these voluntary best practices because the White House told them they had to.

And even though the NTIA stresses that these best practices are not intended to be a template for legislation, you can bet they will be used for just that.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...