Worries over privacy as drone registration begins

© Bobby Yip
As new rules take effect requiring all new drones to be registered before flight, critics are accusing the federal authorities of legal errors and failing to protect registrants’ privacy. Existing drone owners are being urged to wait before registering.

Under the rules imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) earlier this month, private owners must register all unmanned aerial vehicles weighing more than .55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms). Anything above 55 pounds is considered a commercial drone and requires an entirely different license.

Registration opened Monday, and applies to all newly purchased drones. Registrants must be at least 13 years old and submit a name, home address and email address, along with a $5 fee. Registrants will receive a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership, and will be required to mark the identification number from the certificate on all of their drones.

Owners of existing drones have until February 19, 2016 to comply with the rule. To encourage as many people as possible to register early, the FAA has waived the registration fee through January 20, though.

“Failure to register an aircraft can result in civil penalties up to $27,500,” the FAA rules say. "Criminal penalties for failure to register can include fines of up to $250,000.”

READ MORE: Small drone registry introduced by FAA, previous owners have 2 months to file

Safety was cited as the primary reason for establishing the registry. The FAA believes that 200,000 small drones flew in US airspace in 2014, with the agency receiving 238 reports of “potentially unsafe” incidents.

Drone enthusiasts have raised a number of concerns with the FAA’s hasty push to create a national drone registry. For one thing, there does not seem to be a way to tell apart newly purchased drones and existing ones. Legal guidelines issued by the FAA to local law enforcement appear to have omitted any reference to the fact that existing drones can be flown without registration until February 19.

The FAA is also invoking the incorrect law under which private drone owners may be asked for their documents, several legal experts noted.

Another concern is that the names and home addresses of registrants, including minors as young as 13, may become available to the general public once the FAA makes the database searchable, according to Forbes. The agency’s initial privacy disclosures said that the information would be available only to the FAA, the contractor maintaining the database, and law enforcement in certain cases.

In response, the Academy of Model Aeronautics has called on drone operators to hold off registering until the February 19 deadline, while it explores legal and political options to stop the registry.