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FOIA News: How will FAA handle FOIA requests for drone database?

FOIA News (2015-16)Allan BlutsteinComment

FOIA fight looms over drone database

By Josh Gerstein, Politico, Dec. 15, 2015

A legal fight appears to be looming over public access to a new database the Obama Administration is setting up to register drone owners nationwide.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday that it will begin registering small drones next week in an effort to try to capture some of the information on the small, unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft expected to be popular gifts this holiday season.

But what the FAA may find under its Christmas tree is a contentious legal battle over how much access the public, the news media, drone marketers and others should have to the planned database of drone enthusiasts.

Just last month, a task force made up largely of retailers and drone manufacturers recommended that the information in the drone registration database be off limits under the Freedom of Information Act and that officials "prevent the release of any personal information that the agency is not specifically required by law to disclose."

Rules released by the FAA in recent days indicate the agency is trying to make it impossible for the public to obtain a copy of the entire database of drone owners, while still providing access to some of the information.

"The public may only retrieve the name and address of owners of sUASs [small unmanned aircraft systems] registered under 14 CFR part 48 by the unique identifier displayed on the aircraft," the FAA said in a Privacy Act notice dated Friday. The statement says email addresses, telephone numbers and credit card information used to collect the $5 registration fee after a month-long free-registration period "will not be disclosed pursuant to [the] Routine Use" of public access to the database.

However, the documents don't say precisely what FAA plans to do if it receives a FOIA request for the whole database. Media lawyers and transparency advocates say that's because the agency has no authority to issue regulations that block access to information under FOIA.

"FOIA is an act of Congress and takes precedence over any agency interpretation. Even if FAA would like its advisory committee to override the principles of FOIA, it just can’t do it," Kurt Wimmer, general counsel for the Newspaper Association of America, told POLITICO.

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