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In praise of drone users' privacy concerns

Over the past year, news stories about unmanned aircraft systems have highlighted privacy concerns as often as technological improvements. For example, six states now have laws that force police agencies to get warrants before using drones to gather evidence.

The North Dakota Legislature rejected such a law. But lawmakers are sure to introduce it again, and similar measures have been or are being considered in 40 other states.

That's why several paragraphs in a recent Herald story about local law-enforcement agencies' use of drones deserve highlighting:

"A UND compliance committee provides protocols for use of the drones and has authorized only five allowable 'mission sets,'" Herald staff writer Stephen J. Lee reported.

According to Alan Frazier -- assistant professor of aviation at University of North Dakota, research director of the special UAS law enforcement project and a Grand Forks County deputy sheriff -- the five are searches for lost people, post-disaster assessments, crime and accident scene photography, searches for serious crime suspects in which public safety is at risk and assisting traffic control at major events.

"The latter mission shows the committee's concerns about privacy," Frazier said. "The protocol prohibits any photos or video during such traffic control because of the privacy concerns of people attending, for example, a political event or a concert."

Drones are such a huge advance in capabilities that their use seems inevitable, in law enforcement, the military, agriculture and many other sectors.

That said, the privacy concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union and others also are real. So, it's great to see local agencies not only taking those concerns seriously but also acting on them, even before being told to do so by law.

Here's another thought along those lines: Clearly, America avidly is looking to find a way to balance privacy with a robust use of drones. The national flurry of legislative proposals and news stories shows that.

And as the existence of the compliance committee and its protocols suggests, UND already is out front.

If UND hasn't already added "privacy issues" to the lineup of UAS-related items on which the university seeks to take the national lead, it should do so. The area is ripe for research, debate and analysis. "Best practices" need to be listed; costs and benefits need to be surmised.

The issue could involve many other departments and schools besides aerospace. There are obvious legal, psychological and sociological elements, for example.

In short, meeting the challenge of privacy in the new world of unmanned aviation is one that could involve almost the entire university. It's a hugely important problem and one that'll concern the developed world for decades to come. UND is just the place to help solve it.