Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) published guidelines for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, as more commonly called, drones, by federal law enforcement. Currently, the FBI is the only agency using drones, but in light of the recent rise in drone use for kidnapping investigations, search and rescue operations, drug interdictions, and fugitive investigations, the DOJ released these guidelines to stay ahead of the game.

Here is a summary of those guidelines:

  • Respect for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: The guidelines state “respect for civil rights and civil liberties is a core tenet of our democracy.” Therefore, federal law enforcement must use drones in accordance with the First and Fourth Amendments, and only “with properly authorized investigations and activities.”
  • Protection of Privacy: The guidelines state that the DOJ “operates under a set of rules, policies, and laws that control the collection, retention, dissemination and disposition of records that contain personally identifiable information.” The guidelines explain that those same rules, policies and laws apply to the data collected through drone operation. To ensure compliance, the Senior Component Officials for Privacy in each federal law enforcement agency “must conduct annual privacy reviews of their agency’s use of [drones].”
  • Accountability: The guidelines state that “personnel [must be] appropriately trained and supervised,” and in accordance with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) guidelines, all drone operators must be certified.
  • Ongoing Policy Management: The guidelines require that all federal law enforcement agencies “report annually to the Deputy Attorney General on the use of [drones].”
  • Transparency: Lastly, the guidelines state the DOJ seeks to enhance “transparency about agency operations, including how we operate [drones], [to] create an informed citizenry and greater confidence in the [DOJ’s] decision-making.” The DOJ seeks to educate the public as it continues to use drones for investigations and begins using drones in new ways to help aid investigations.

This is a substantial step in the right direction for protection of citizens’ privacy rights as more and more drones start flying above our heads.