Former White House Tech Advisor Outlines Security, Privacy Debates Around UAS

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The tension between security concerns and the rights of UAS users was at the core of a conversation between guest speaker Terah Lyons and students of Marshini Chetty’s spring 2017 computer science class, “These Aren’t The Drones You Are Looking For: Mitigating the Privacy and Security Implications of Drones.”

Lyons, policy advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2015-2017, outlined current debates among federal regulatory and security agencies, such as how to define risk, proper levels of enforcement and how best to work with stakeholders to set policy. 

“We are currently as a government trying to grapple with this really tough question around at what cost does security and safety come when it comes to safeguarding civil liberties of individual [UAS] users,” Lyons told the class.

One example cited by Lyons was a proposed  “flight over people” rule, which would permit limited drone use, with strict guidelines, over public events such as concerts. “It would have allowed for a new category of flights [enabled by a] new category of micro drones that could fly directly over people,” she said. 

This proposal, which sought to balance the interests of private enterprise with those of the security community, was blocked by a federal security committee due to concerns about safety and privacy. 

Complicating the issue is a lack of legal precedent and legislative action defining the boundaries of federal enforcement and jurisdiction. 

“We don’t have a clear public policy on how organizations can interact with the operator of the drones or the vehicles themselves,” she noted, “especially around critical infrastructure or public property.”

The feds, she said, have begun working with drone manufacturers, who have a strong interest in proactively helping to set policy. This includes discussions around technologies to track and identify drones and when such tools should be legally allowed. 

Geofencing—utilizing GPS and other tracking technology to clearly identify and define where drones can be flown—is one example of a tool that may become increasingly important as use of UAS continues to expand.

"Geofencing creates a multilayer user experience that defines what and where people can fly," Lyons said. "A classic example would be [over] a farmers market or baseball game." 

Chetty’s course provided a platform for students to explore technological solutions to issues around drone practice and policy. It also provided a forum for discussion of matters of privacy and security, and the evolving regulatory landscape for drone users.

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