Fairfax County, Virginia Delays Drone Program Expansion to Focus on Public Concerns

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has decided to halt its draft drone policy to garner more public input regarding privacy concerns.

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The Board of Supervisors for Fairfax County, Virginia discussed the potential use of drones for law enforcement and emergency services at a committee meeting in January, but decided on Tuesday to delay the purchase of several drones to focus on the public’s privacy concerns before continuing, according to WTOP

Though the meeting earlier this year covered the motivations and use-cases for expanded drone use in detail, the completed, full drone policy manual was only released last week, with little time for the Board of Supervisors to assess it and approve it. Currently, the idea to purchase at least half a dozen drones, each costing around $3,500, has been put on hold in order to garner public input before moving forward.

“I have subsequently contacted organizations that I thought would have opinions on this,” said Supervisor John Foust. “They were not even aware we were going to hear it today.” Regarding the new timeline for this proposed proliferation of drones for local police and emergency services, Public Safety Committee Chairman John Cook is determined to accumulate honest opinions and advice from Fairfax County residents in order to more adequately return to the issue in December. 

“We need to look at the civil rights implications for our citizens,” said Cook. “People tend to think that they have privacy in their backyard, and they won’t necessarily have that if there’s an inadvertent [camera shot]. While the draft policy says that everything will be done in accordance with the law, the law is in flux.”

To his latter point, Cook conveys an extremely grounded sense of familiarity with the ever-evolving regulatory, technological, and legislative complexities facing the modern drone era for the American public. It was only a few days ago, that the Uniform Law Commission proposed a new aerial trespass doctrine that argued to have determined just what exactly constitutes a clear breach of the law and encroachment on constitutionally-granted privacy rights. The Drone Advisory Committee staunchly disagreed, however, as did the Federal Aviation Administration, with the logic that got them there, and the potential consequences of implementing such rules into law. Some of these consequences, as Cook sees them, could be irrevocable. 

“It’s already the law that if there is a legal and proper police stop or surveillance and then you see something, that you an usually use what you see to do further action,” Cook explained. “We turn a camera on as it flies over somebody’s backyard and it picks up something, that picture’s probably going to be enough for a judge to issue a warrant and then the police can go into somebody’s house, and so this is serious.” It’s refreshing to see lawmakers like Cook state clearly and directly that the rush to expanding governmental drone use without heeding the public’s views on the matter is not the path to victory.

Fairfax County has revised its draft policy several times already, with the aim of launching the proposed drone program as soon as it receives FAA approval. These unmanned aerial vehicles would, as regulation designates, not be permitted to encroach on critical infrastructure, military or otherwise restricted airspace. The primary focus, as stated in the draft policy, would be to bolster search and rescue missions, emergency operations, infrastructure inspection, and police investigations. The policy also states that any recorded aerial footage would only be accessed as needed, and not stored permanently or for the long-term. Of course, in the wake of the revelations of mass-surveillance on behalf of the NSA, not everyone is as trusting. The draft policy wisely touches on this.

“Although the potential benefits and enhanced capabilities are substantial, it is acknowledged that concerns exist that UAS may be misused or abused, particularly by law enforcement agencies,” the draft policy reads. “UAS operators, observers, and support staff shall ensure the protection of individuals’ civil rights, civil liberties and reasonable expectations of privacy in any UAS deployment.”

As it stands, this policy is purportedly garnering additional input from yet unidentified members of the public, to be revisited more democratically before the year is up. As we continue our trek into uncharted, aerial territory, with the amount of unmanned camera-drones growing faster than ever before, it’s important to keep the basic tenets of our democracy in mind before we secure commercial or governmental abilities by potentially sacrificing the rights of the citizenry.