Yesterday, the Niskanen Center submitted comments to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) discussing the privacy implications of commercial drones.

I agree with the FTC, that although “drones may offer numerous benefits, the potential for information collection raises the potential for consumer harms, including invasion of privacy, identification, trespass, and harassment.” However, as I argue in the comments, the mere potential for consumer harms to materialize in the future should not embolden the agency to pursue action against the still nascent industry. Drones are a potential game-changer for numerous disparate industries—from delivery service providers and transportation to infrastructure inspection and agriculture.

Additionally, privacy violations resulting from the use of this technology are not drone-specific. Individuals wishing to invade the precincts of private life already have a wide-array of tools at their disposal. While there may be harms that materialize in the future that are unique to drone operations, no such cases have yet presented themselves. In addition to existing authorities to address potential concerns, the FTC has a privacy framework that can be readily applied to emerging technologies such as drones. When coupled with the recent drone operation best practices drafted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s multi-stakeholder session, there are a wide range of tools and guidelines that can help positively guide this industry’s development, while remedying abuses as they emerge.

As such, I argue that the FTC is already well-positioned—and broadly authorized—to address privacy violations as they emerge. Regulating in advance of known issues, however, is more likely to result in less innovation, reduced investment, and stymied job creation.  

From the executive summary:

Unmanned aerial systems, or commercial drones, are the latest in a parade of emerging technologies capturing headlines. This technology has captured the public’s imagination, leading many to consider the privacy ramifications of skies crowded with potential surveillance machines. The Federal Trade Commission is appropriately situated to deal with harms to consumers resulting from violations of privacy by operators of commercial drones. We acknowledge that problems may materialize in the future, but argue that there is no current justification for the agency to regulate this technology. In addition, we point to a number of existing authorities, best practices, and regulatory frameworks that can be applied to commercial drones without forestalling innovation and progress.

Read the full comments here.