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Drone privacy scare: Feds don’t know who is responsible for oversight, GAO reveals

Americans may be counting on the federal government to stop drones from invading their privacy, but Washington has yet to figure out exactly whose job that is.

In testimony to a House subcommittee last week, a top official at the Government Accountability Office said various federal departments and agencies still are sorting out who will take lead in overseeing drones.

"At best, we can say it's unknown at this point," said Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues at the GAO, told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's subcommittee on oversight during a Friday hearing.

As the Obama administration prepares to integrate drones into U.S. airspace — expected to take place by the fall of 2015 — privacy advocates, lawmakers and others worry about the potential impact drones could have on Americans' Fourth Amendment rights. Smaller and much less noticeable than traditional aircraft, drones are better suited for surveillance by law enforcement. Critics fear drones' ability to fly undetected could be abused by authorities, media outlets or others.

While the Federal Aviation Administration has promised to look into privacy issues, the agency has acknowledged explicitly that it has no legal authority to act. The FAA also has its hands full already to ensure drones can fly safely alongside airplanes and helicopters.

To fill the void on protecting privacy, lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels have introduced measures to limit drones and what they can do. At least 11 states, including Virginia, are considering legislation that would restrict how police and other agencies could use the craft.

City governments also are taking action. Officials in Seattle, for example, recently forced the police department to abandon its plan to use drones.

Members of Congress have put forth at least a half-dozen bills to address the craft and personal privacy protection. But even as drone use explodes in both the government and private sectors, it's unclear which part of the federal government would be responsible for enforcing such laws.

"We have to at least figure out who the go-to person is in the administration so it doesn't fall through the cracks," said New York Rep. Daniel B. Maffei, the ranking Democrat on the oversight subcommittee.

Committee Chairman Rep. Paul C. Broun, Georgia Republican, said Americans understandably have fears about drones and what they will be allowed to do, and it's up to Congress to allay those concerns.

"The public is frightened," he said.

Meanwhile, the FAA announced last week that it is accepting applications from states, universities and other entities to host six test sites where drones will be put through rigorous testing in preparation for their integration into U.S. airspace.

More than 30 states, including Virginia and Maryland, have expressed interest in the program. Competition to host the sites is expected to be fierce, as the six locations not only will provide an economic boost but also will play an important role during a revolutionary period in aviation.

The program is vital to the FAA's plan to integrate drones into the national airspace by September 2015, but it appears the agency is flexible on that date, which was established by Congress in last year's FAA Modernization and Reform Act.

"We view that [date] as a beginning. ... We look at it as a rolling approach" to integration, said Karlin Toner, director of the agency's joint planning and development office, in testimony to the oversight subcommittee.

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