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More drones take to the sky, like it or not

The FBI has approval to fly drones. So does the town of Herington, Kan., population 2,526, according to new documents from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The T-Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle from Honeywell, which has applied for an FAA airworthiness certificate for it.
The T-Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle from Honeywell, which has applied for an FAA airworthiness certificate for it.

New documents shed light on which government agencies are experimenting with the domestic use of unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.

Drone use isn't restricted to Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Air Force. Legal authorization to fly drones has also been extended to police departments including ones in Herington, Kan., (population 2,526) and Gadsden, Ala., (which touts the nearby Foggy Hollow Bluegrass Gatherin' on its town Web site).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation had to sue the Feds to obtain the lists of drone approvals, which the Federal Aviation Administration finally released this week. A second list shows which manufacturers have applied.

"Unfortunately, these lists leave many questions unanswered. For example, the COA list does not include any information on which model of drone or how many drones each entity flies," the EFF says in a blog post. (A COA is a Certificate of Authorization the FAA grants for drone activity.)

Domestic use of drones isn't exactly new. Six years ago, as CNET reported at the time, Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection Bureau proposed flying unmanned aerial vehicles over the southern border, and one North Carolina county was already using a UAV equipped with low-light and infrared cameras to keep watch on its citizens.

An FAA-related bill that President Obama signed in February accelerated this trend. It requires the agency to come up with a way to "safely accelerate" the deployment of UAVs, including figuring out how they will share the skies with manned aircraft.

That raises novel privacy concerns, especially when low-cost drones can hover over someone's backyard -- or police use them for domestic surveillance purposes that would otherwise be impossible or unlawful.

Last year at the Black Hat computer security conference, a pair of engineers showed up to demonstrate how their retrofitted U.S. Army target drone can eavesdrop on Wi-Fi, phone, and Bluetooth signals. And a drone recently helped North Dakota police make an arrest.

Reps. Ed Markey, a Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Republican, wrote a letter (PDF) to the FAA yesterday asking for details about how both the current temporary rules and the forthcoming ones adequately protect Americans' privacy rights.

It asks: "What privacy protections and public transparency requirements has the FAA built into its current temporary licensing process for drones used in U.S. airspace?" And: "How will the public be notified about where and when drones are used, who will operate the drones, what data will be collected?"