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Students fear for privacy as universities apply for drone-flying permits

Friday, March 15, 2013 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: universities, drones, privacy


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(NaturalNews) More and more Americans are becoming leery of the ever-widening use of drones by federal agencies and domestic law enforcement, which is in and of itself disturbing, but increasingly, college students are beginning to get nervous over a rise in drone applications to the Federal Aviation Administration by universities.

As of this writing, more than 30 public universities have applied to the federal government for permits to operate drones, with more expected to apply in the coming months and years. Applicants include the Universities of Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, according to records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights organization.

According to the schools, most are seeking drones for "research purposes," though often colleges are vague about what that "research" will entail.

Drones to follow students?

"In general, when universities have applied for these ... it's been research related," said Rebecca Jeschke, media relations director of EFF, in an interview with The Daily Caller. "It could mean everything from they have a program where they want to teach people how to build or fly drones, or wanting to fly the drones in order to gather research. To fly over an agricultural area, to fly off the coast to a place where it would be hard to get people to, to make some sort of wildlife assessment."

Not all permit requests are research-related, the group said. For example, Georgia Tech University applied for a drone permit for three surveillance UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in 2010. That request was denied by the FAA, but university officials made clear the purpose of the drones on campus would be to "follow individual on foot," Campus Reform reported. The publication went on to report that the drones were being requested by campus police.

That particular use of drones is disconcerting, said Jeschke.

"We have lots of concerns about law enforcement using drones, and we would have the same concerns about law enforcement, whether it was the university or not," she said, adding that universities should be guaranteeing students that officials will not be watching their every move.

"We think universities and other research organizations should still have a privacy policy," she said.

GT had wanted to purchase three Hornet Micro drones from Adaptive Flight, according to the documents, which were initially acquired by a small watchdog group, Muckrock News.

The UAVs are very small, weigh only about two pounds, and are described by the manufacturer as providing "a unique surveillance system designed to support close-range reconnaissance missions during tactical operations in cluttered urban terrain."

It's the uncertainty over what universities might do with their drones that has privacy advocates so rightfully concerned.

Drones here, there, everywhere

From Time magazine:

[T]he EFF points out that the "COA list does not include any information on which model of drone or how many drones each entity flies," meaning while one might assume 18-year-old students are playing with $100 DIY drones, technically they could be flying anything.

Still, the magazine said, the most disturbing aspect of increasing drone presence is the use of them by police departments, dozens of which are applying for drone licenses with the FAA:

Perhaps more troubling to privacy advocates, however, is the growing list of police departments gaining permission to fly drones, which includes departments in Arlington, Houston, North Little Rock, Miami-Dade County, Seattle, Polk County, FL and Gadsden, AL.

Miami, being a relatively large city and a major port of entry into the United States, seems like a reasonable candidate for UAVs. But why Gadsden, a small city of 36,719 in Alabama? Can any city, no matter what its size and needs, get authorization to fly drones over its citizens?


Privacy advocates are waiting for answers from the FAA.

Sources:

http://dailycaller.com

http://www.campusreform.org/blog/?ID=4605

http://techland.time.com

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