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Three Reasons the Drone Industry Should Support Privacy Protections

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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April 9, 2013

As I mentioned recently, lobbying by Boeing contributed to the defeat (for now) of drone privacy legislation in Washington state. In fact, we are starting to see a few of the many legislative proposals for regulating drones die in state legislatures (our updated chart on the status of such legislation is here). One of the reasons legislation has been shut down in some of these states is (poorly founded) concern that passing such protections will inhibit a state’s chances of winning one of the drone “test sites” that the FAA is in the process of awarding. Meanwhile, the drone industry association, the AUVSI, has also been opposing state privacy-protection bills, citing the unconvincing argument that existing laws and the courts are enough to ensure privacy. And drone boosters have always intimated that privacy rules will interfere with economic benefits that a booming drone industry will provide.

This is all quite misguided.

  1. It’s in the interests of the drone industry and other drone boosters for good solid privacy protections to be put into law. If we can set everbody’s privacy concerns to rest, that will allow drones to boom without the dark cloud of Big Brother hanging over them. Good protections will allow us to enjoy the benefits drones could bring without having to worry about their dark side. They’ll allow innovations to flower without controversy, media coverage, and protests every step of the way.
  1. There is a long tradition of industries supporting regulation in their own self-interest. The meat-packing industry, for example, welcomed regulation by the FDA in the early 20th century because the image of the entire industry and its products were being tainted by “bottom-feeders” who would undercut other players on price by pursuing unsanitary and unethical practices. By allowing the government to outlaw such practices and supporting the creation of an enforcement mechanism, reputable companies avoided having to compete in a race to the bottom that would further endanger the image of the entire industry and public faith in its product.
  1. Privacy regulation will also save those who work in the drone industry from being forced to choose between engaging in anti-social, unethical behavior that many of their fellow citizens view with disgust, or hurting their business—a choice I think most people would prefer to avoid if they can.

Even if privacy and moneymaking were directly at odds, policymakers should not sell out our dearest values, and allow our country to become a darker place for a short-term economic gain in one industry. Allowing our country to turn into some dark Pottersville will not be good for the happiness of our people, which is the only point of economic development anyway.

But in the end, for the most part, I really think the privacy and the economic benefits of drones are not at odds with each other—the one must be satisfied before the other can be fully realized.

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