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Becky Bowers
By Becky Bowers March 11, 2013

Sen. Dianne Feinstein says there's 'no regulation' of commercial drones

So, the government can’t use a weaponized drone to strike down a U.S. citizen who’s "not engaged in combat," says Attorney General Eric Holder.

But can paparazzi use camera-laden drones to violate Hollywood’s privacy?

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein says so.

Feinstein, chair of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, chatted with Hardball host Chris Matthews the day after Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster over U.S. drone policy.

Paul was concerned about a March 4, 2013, letter from the attorney general that didn’t appear to rule out drone strikes against U.S. citizens on American soil. A new letter satisfied his curiosity.

But his March 6 "drone rant," as the Wall Street Journal called it, raised criticism from lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.,  and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

On MSNBC, Matthews asked Feinstein: Was Rand "playing to the paranoia in people"?

Feinstein replied that armed drones are a "new technology" and a "very dangerous weapon," that she wants to keep out of the hands of other nations. Then she said:

"We have no regulation of drones in the United States in their commercial use. You can see drones some day hovering over the homes of Hollywood luminaries, violating privacy.

"This question has to be addressed. And we need rules of operation on the border, by police, by commercial use, and also by military and intelligence use.

"So this is now a work in progress. We are taking a look at it on the Intelligence Committee, trying to draft some legislation. The administration is looking at a rules playbook as to how these won't be used and how they will be used."

About armed drones, we’ve heard plenty in recent days, thanks to Paul.

But Feinstein’s privacy claim caught our eye. Do "we have no regulation of drones in the United States in their commercial use"?


We gave Feinstein’s office a day or two to explain her comments, but her staff didn’t offer an on-the-record response.

So we chatted with experts on drones, also known as "unmanned aircraft systems," and read up on Federal Aviation Administration rules.

That’s right — there are FAA rules. Do they address "commercial use" of drones?


The only way for folks who don’t work in government to get FAA approval to fly a drone in U.S. airspace is to get something called an "experimental airworthiness certificate."

And the FAA doesn’t give them out for commercial use.

"The FAA's rules — once you can find them — are pretty clear: You cannot use a drone for a commercial purpose without a permit," said Matt Waite, who founded the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

"And, the FAA has made it pretty clear that those permits are really only for research and development and in very limited circumstances," he added. "So, it amounts to a total ban on commercial (use)."

Waite would know:  Students and faculty in his lab "research the ethical, legal and regulatory issues involved in using pilotless aircraft to do journalism."

And even he hasn’t yet been able to score an FAA certificate.

Full disclosure: Before Waite joined the University of Nebraska in 2011 to teach reporting and digital product development, he was an employee of the Tampa Bay Times who helped create PolitiFact.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit group that represents members interested in promoting drone technology, also told us that Feinstein was mistaken.

"There are a number of regulations on commercial flights of unmanned systems," said Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for the group.

Not only that, Hinton said, but currently, that includes "no commercial use."

That looks to us like the opposite of what Feinstein said.

Still, Feinstein has a point about privacy, said Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington and author of the article, "The Drone as Privacy Catalyst."

He notes federal privacy laws haven’t kept pace with drone technology, and that while the FAA currently bans commercial use of drones, Congress has asked for new regulations for civilian drones by 2015.

Lawmakers want to "safely accelerate" the use of such drones, according to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, a piece of legislation that Feinstein supported.

"In this respect, she is correct," Calo said.

Still, the agency has said it will address concerns about privacy as it develops a new regulatory framework. It’s just not yet clear whether the new rules will satisfy privacy advocates. That’s because it's still in the middle of rulemaking, and plans more public outreach.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, for example, petitioned the FAA to take privacy into account as it drafts its rules. The FAA agreed, saying the month before Feinstein’s comment that it "intends to address these issues through engagement and collaboration with the public."

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But final privacy requirements are still under development.

Our ruling

Feinstein said, "We have no regulation of drones in the United States in their commercial use." Feinstein’s wrong: Not only does the FAA regulate the commercial use of drones, it actually bans it. Still, the landscape is changing. At Congress’ direction, the FAA is drafting new regulations. How those rules will address privacy concerns, it's too soon to tell. But it's inaccurate to say there’s "no regulation." We rate her statement False.

Our Sources

MSNBC, "Hardball with Chris Matthews," March 7, 2013

CQ Newsmaker Transcripts, "Sen. Feinstein Interviewed on MSNBC," March 7, 2013 (subscription only)

Attorney General's Office, Letter from Eric Holder to Sen. Rand Paul, March 7, 2013

Attorney General’s Office, Letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Sen. Rand Paul, March 4, 2013

Wall Street Journal, "Rand Paul's Drone Rant," March 7, 2013

PolitiFact, "Sen. Rand Paul says Obama 'is advocating a drone strike program in America,'" March 7, 2013

Email interview with Brian Weiss, communications director for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, March 11, 2013

Email interview with Laura Brown, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, FAA, March 8, 2013

Email interview with Matt Waite, professor of practice, College of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Nebraska, March 8, 2013

Email interview with Ryan Calo, assistant professor, University of Washington School of Law, March 8, 2013

Email interview with Melanie Hinton, senior communications manager, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, March 11, 2013

Library of Congress, "H.R. 658: FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012," Feb. 14, 2012

U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 112th Congress, "Vote on the Conference Report to Accompany H.R. 658," Feb. 6, 2012

Federal Aviation Administration, "Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)," last modified Feb. 14, 2013

Federal Aviation Administration, "Fact Sheet – Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)," Feb. 19, 2013

Federal Aviation Administration, "Unmanned Aircraft (UAS): Questions and Answers," last modified Oct. 14, 2011

Federal Aviation Administration, "Press Release – FAA Announces Request for Proposals For Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research and Test Sites," Feb. 14, 2013

Drone Journalism Lab, "About the Lab," accessed March 8, 2013

Stanford Law Review, "The Drone as Privacy Catalyst," Dec. 12, 2011

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