DHS small UAVs not a privacy concern - yet

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Testing by the Homeland Security Department of unmanned aerial vehicles under simulated emergency conditions presents few privacy concerns, says the departmental privacy office.

A privacy impact assessment (.pdf) dated Nov. 16 notes that tests  in Ft. Sill, Okla., involve volunteers; the assessment doesn't address privacy implications that would be created by the actual deployment of small unmanned aerial systems by DHS or local governments.

DHS solicited for vendor participation in the tests in a Sept. 24 request for information in which it said UAVs would be assessed over 5 consecutive days for matters such as ease of launch and sensor performance. The RFI specified that the vehicles should weigh less than 25 pounds, would ideally be hand-launched and easy enough to operate so that someone could learn to do so in a day. They should also be able to operate for at least a half hour, with endurance of an hour preferred for rotary-wing UAVs and 2 hours for fixed wing UAVs.

Among the "simulated but realistic" scenarios tested are law enforcement operations, search and rescue, fire and hazardous material spill response. The privacy assessment adds that DHS may conduct a second round of small UAV testing at still-undetermined border locations.   

The privacy assessment does acknowledge that deployment of UAVs will cause privacy concerns, and says that DHS is establishing an issue working group "to explore departmental roles and equities involving privacy and civil liberties."

The type of privacy mitigations that may be needed will vary on the capabilities of the UAVs themselves, the assessment also says. For example, a UAV with low camera resolution "may not require face-blurring or anonymizing features, as no footage would capture identifiable images," it says.

For more:
- download the privacy impact assessment, DHS/S&T/PIA-026 (.pdf)

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