PolitiFact: Feinstein’s comment on commercial drones doesn’t fly

This article was edited for length. To see a complete version and its sources, go to www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/mar/11/dianne-feinstein/regulation-commercial-drones/.

“We have no regulation of drones in the United States in their commercial use.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., during an interview March 7 on MSNBC’s “Hardball”

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

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

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein says so.

Feinstein, chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, chatted with “Hardball” host Chris Matthews on March 7, the day after U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster over U.S. drone policy.

Paul was concerned about a March 4 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.

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 spoke to 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 people 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.”

Full disclosure: Before Waite joined the University of Nebraska’s faculty 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 said 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 rule making 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.”

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.