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US government publishes drone best practices

Spying a no-no. Unless you're a media company

You can't use drones to check whether your employee really is sick, or to take pictures of your neighbors, unless you're a news organization in which case the sky is the limit.

That's according to advice published by the US government over how best to use drones – or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as they are officially known.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) – an arm of the Department of Commerce – has published a set of best practice guidelines [PDF] for the use of drones by companies, individuals and news organizations following a year of discussions among those groups.

As the name suggests, the guidelines are not obligatory or legally binding but will form the start of a broader US government effort to come to terms with drone technology and how it will impact citizens and businesses in the future.

In many respects, the guidelines are the antithesis of recent rules published by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): where the FAA's rules are precise, the NTIA guidelines are vague; where the FAA threatens fines, the NTIA advises caution; and where the FAA is often hopelessly unrealistic, the NTIA's guidelines are grounded in reality.

See no evil...

The guidelines break down in three basic groups: companies, individuals and media organizations.

Companies are told that they should give people advance notice of the fact they intend to fly where the person may be, giving approximate times and telling them what information they will be gathering and what they intend to do with it – that includes policies of providing data to law enforcement, and other aspects such as blurring people's faces (like Google's Street View).

They are also advised to gather only the information that is necessary and to ensure that the data is kept securely.

It also recommends that some potential uses be banned altogether, including anything relating to: employment eligibility, promotion, or retention; credit eligibility; and healthcare treatment eligibility. Or, in other words, spying on employees.

As for individuals, the guidelines are more commonsense, such as: "If you can, tell other people you'll be taking pictures or video of them before you do."

It also advises people not to fly over private property, not to gather personal information, to give people a reasonable level of privacy, and to delete data on people if they ask. In other words, be respectful.

And as for news organizations: the rules do not apply. Instead they should "operate under the ethics rules and standards of their organization, and according to existing federal and state laws." ®

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