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Nevada's gamble on drone industry also leads to privacy concerns

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Nevada's gamble on drone industry also leads to privacy concerns

By Michael Lopardi. CREATED May 12, 2014

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- The state of Nevada is taking a gamble on drones, but is the state also taking a gamble on your privacy?

From your car, to your backyard, to your local park, odds are you don't really know who, or what, is watching.

"I think all of us will be keeping our eyes on the skies," said Martha Trautwein, a part time resident of Las Vegas.

Drones, also called "unmanned aircraft systems" or UAS, are leading to privacy concerns as commercial users look to expand the market.

"I think privacy is a large issue particularly for something that could be made so small that you could mistake it for a large dragon fly," Trautwein said.

From military bases to civilian test sites, drones are already in use over the skies of southern Nevada and we could soon see more. The Federal Aviation Administration recently selected Nevada as one of six testing sites for drones.

"Our business climate, frankly, sells itself in terms of different types of benefits," said Thomas Wilczek, aerospace and defense specialist with the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

The governor's office wants the industry to take flight in the Silver State but privacy advocates are also raising concerns.

"The right of privacy has certainly been weakened but it still exists," said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada.

Lichtenstein said Nevada has no real laws regulating drones.

"In the absence of laws, all sorts of privacy issues can arise," Lichtenstein said.

Some issues include data collection. Most drones can see; some can hear; many collect information. Who gets to see that information? Who gets to share it?

"You can fly UAVs and have them do anything you want them to do," said Rama Venkat, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

The school will offer a drone studies minor in the fall.

"I think it's a fear of the unknown, in my mind," Venkat said. "I think it will be resolved."

Legal advisers said it's not uncommon for the law to chase after new industries; often technology develops faster than lawmakers can legislate.

"I think my concern is that the state and law be aware enough to have rules that control the impact on privacy," said Christopher Blakesly, professor at UNLV's William S. Boyd School of Law.

Blakesly said the United States Constitution provides the legal foundation to deal with privacy issues.

"We need to develop that framework to make it work well," Blakesly said.

But state lawmakers will have their work cut out for them. Drones have wide ranging capabilities and the wording of any new legislation will be key.

"This is a whole new area and as a whole new area, it's going to create a new body of law," Lichtenstein said.

Action News wanted to know where Governor Brian Sandoval stands on all of this. Spokesman Tyler Klimas sent the following statement:

"The Governor is committed to making sure Nevada is the leader in unmanned systems, and that includes an unwavering commitment to both safety and privacy. For the drone industry to flourish, citizens in Nevada and around the country need to be confident that unmanned systems will be used in a safe and appropriate manner. New, cutting edge technology will need cutting edge policy. It is also important to note that the Boyd Law School has created a working group to discuss privacy policy. The Governor is confident that our state will lead in both unmanned systems operations and in the policy that regulates those operations."

Nevada lawmakers are set to return to session in February but there's no guarantee that they will act.

Michael Lopardi

Michael Lopardi

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Michael Lopardi is the featured reporter of the You Ask. We Investigate. franchise at Action News.