Domestic Drones: Implications for Privacy and Due Process in the United States

September 8, 2014

“I have seen firsthand the surveillance capabilities of drone aircrafts. Drones have the unique capability to peer into private homes and businesses and listen to private conversations... [There was] a demonstration in front of my house, and so, I went to the window to peek out and see who was there, and there was a drone right there, at the window, looking out at me.”

- Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Independent testimony on domestic drone usage
Hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (January 15, 2014)


Why we produced this paper

Drones are aircraft that can be operated without the possibility of human intervention on or within the aircraft. The vast prevalence of domestic drones is nearly inevitable and a natural progression of technology meeting human needs. In February 2012, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act, which mandated that drones be further integrated into the national airspace by September 2015. The Secretary of Transportation and the FAA were delegated with the responsibility of making domestic drone operation a reality. The FAA has already made progress toward this goal: in November 2013, the FAA produced a roadmap for the integration of drones and in December, the FAA selected six sites to test domestic drone integration.

As domestic drones become more prevalent, however, several issues remain unresolved. These issues are particularly salient because drones are likely to transform the physical and legal landscapes of our country. An overview of existing law suggests that there are inadequate safeguards in place to protect privacy and due process rights.

Our conclusions and recommendations

In this report, we present an overview of the existing law on privacy and due process, and analyze proposed legislation to determine how adequately they protect civil liberties. Part I lays out existing law on privacy and due process, and addresses the integration of drones into the national airspace. Part II proposes guidelines for regulations, while Part III describes the various bills and other measures being taken to regulate drones.

We propose the following guidelines to address the issues of law enforcement use of drones, data collection, weaponization of drones, due process, oversight, and transparency:

  • Law enforcement use of drones should be restricted.
  • Data collection should be strictly monitored.
  • The FAA should require, not merely recommend, that test sites incorporate the Fair Information Principles into their privacy policies.
  • The weaponization of drones should be prohibited.
  • The right to due process should be preserved.
  • States and individuals should have the ability to bring a cause of action against an entity that, in operating a drone, violates their rights.
  • Drone deployment by federal agents must be subjected to Congressional oversight and local public drone use should be subjected to local city council oversight.
  • The general public should be engaged in the development of policy guidelines by a public body intending to operate drones.
  • In keeping with the principle of transparency, the FAA should make available to the public the names of drone applicants, the holders of Certificates of Authorization, other licensees, and privacy policies of drone-operating agencies.


Note: The information in this report is current as of May 2014.



View All


Help us continue our work with a quick
one-time or monthly donation.