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Congress members push privacy bills in response to Amazon delivery drones

Congress members push privacy bills in response to Amazon delivery drones


Will drones give you better shopping recommendations by watching your house?

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Amazon Prime Air
Amazon Prime Air

Since Jeff Bezos announced Amazon's hypothetical delivery-by-octocopter service earlier this week, its drones have become a point of focus for existing debates over privacy, regulation, and "disruptive" technology. The plan has given a sense of urgency to questions about widespread governmental and commercial drone use, and a new hook for members of Congress trying to answer those questions through legislation. Yesterday, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) became the second member of Congress to raise the specter of Amazon Prime Air to support an anti-surveillance bill, giving a sometimes colorful account of how the drones could change our future.

In just a few years, Bezos said people will be able to order something online and have it in their hands within 30 minutes by the use of drones. It sounds like something out of the Jetsons, doesn't it? Gone will be the days of the neighborhood mail carriers. Soon there will be a drone to replace them. According to Amazon, these drones can deliver packages up to 5 pounds, which makes up 90 percent of their deliveries.

Mr. Speaker, thousands of Americans use Amazon every year, especially around the holiday season. Amazon, unlike the glitch-ridden government Web sites, can efficiently use online Internet services that get a timely product to market. Think of how many drones could soon be flying around the sky. Here a drone, there a drone, everywhere a drone in the United States.

Poe congratulated Amazon on its plan but said it also opened the door to privacy violations, including a drone-based product recommendation service that watches your house to figure out what consumer goods you're missing.

The issue of concern, Mr. Speaker, is surveillance, not the delivery of packages. That includes surveillance of someone's backyard, snooping around with a drone, checking out a person's patio to see if that individual needs new patio furniture from the company.

His actual, fairly practical bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), was brought in February. It would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using surveillance drones, make it illegal to violate someone's reasonable expectation of privacy with a privately owned craft, and ban weaponized drones on American soil — an issue that was at the forefront of the public consciousness in early 2013 as leaked documents provided details on the CIA's drone operations abroad.

Earlier, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) pushed his own "Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act" in the wake of Bezos' announcement. "Before drones start delivering packages, we need the FAA to deliver privacy protections for the American public," he wrote in a statement. While both Markey and Poe described the Amazon octocopters as taking flight in the next few years, the actual timeline for anything beyond testing is a lot longer, and the doorstop drone service Amazon describes seems unlikely to happen at all barring a major policy shift and solutions to some basic technological problems.