How the FAA Grounds Freedom of Information Requests About Drones

The flight safety agency is dragging its feet on meaningful transparency around domestic drone deployments.

Shawn Musgrave

Photo: Shutterstock

It took two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits for the Federal Aviation Administration to release basic information on which government agencies around the country had applied for waivers to fly drones. Two years later, the FAA continues to dodge the same basic requests for information.

The FAA approves all aircraft flights in national airspace. Since 2006, the FAA has used a waiver system to allow particular government agencies to fly particular drone models in particular geographic areas. This matter of private sector drone use is currently in litigation, but the process for government agencies is standardized, even if clunky. The FBI, for instance, has approached the FAA for nationwide authorization, with seemingly little luck.

Since the FAA is the sole gatekeeper over lawful drone deployments, its waiver application process ought to allow for a quick headcount of agencies interested in flying UAVs. But the agency’s lawyers and transparency officers have fought to limit the release of basic information and documents.

In April 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted a FOIA request to the FAA for all drone waiver applications. When the FAA failed to release any documents after nine months, the EFF filed two lawsuits, and won both. A judge ordered the FAA to release its thousands of pages of waiver files, which the agency has gradually done for the past two years.

The release of these waiver files is a critical victory, to be sure. And the FAA’s short-staffed Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office insists that it is releasing files as quickly as it can process them. But even after losing twice in court, the FAA is dragging its feet on meaningful transparency around domestic drone deployments.

The most recent list of agencies that have applied for drone waivers is from January 2013, and that list—also obtained by the EFF as part of its litigation—includes waivers up through October 2012. Per FAA figures, it approved close to 400 waivers in 2013 alone, and there were more than 500 waivers active as of December.

To get an updated picture of which agencies were pursuing drone technology, in November I submitted a FOIA request for an updated list of agencies with FAA waivers. In response, the FAA insisted that its ongoing EFF litigation barred it from releasing such a list, a tactic its FOIA staff brandished in slapping away another request for drone flight logs filed more than a year ago.

Attorneys at EFF were just as confused as I was at this response, and said that they were unaware of any provision in their settlements with the FAA that might preclude processing other document requests related to drone regulation.

When pressed, the FAA next claimed that there are “several dozen requests for UAS records in the queue” ahead of mine. Given the deluge, its FOIA officers project that it may be able to release drone flight logs by May 2015, by which time the request will be more than two years old.

The FAA FOIA logs cast serious doubt on the FAA’s claims of inundation—by my count, it received fewer than 20 requests for drone documents in fiscal year 2013.

Its latest excuse takes all, though. On Monday, the FAA begged for more time to track down an updated list of all drone waivers by claiming that the scope of such a request is “large and voluminous.”

Again, the FAA has a database of all waiver applicants. It even has an online portal for agencies to submit their applications. Each waiver application, whether granted or denied, is assigned a unique identifier. Exporting such data is a logistical cakewalk, and the FAA oversees scores of data systems that are astronomically more complex. See, for example, previous lists released by the FAA to the EFF and one curious congressman.

The FAA’s delay in releasing this information does not come down to a lack of resources or an unreasonable ask. This is a matter of will and obstruction. At every step, the FAA has resisted transparency into drone regulation, and such seems to be its unwavering stance.