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Crafting Policy that Fosters Innovation

Researchers tasked to develop policy that protects privacy and spurs innovation

Derek Kauneckis

Somewhere in a high school classroom or garage or basement right now is a kid who could invent the next great use for a drone. One that current engineers and scientists haven't even imagined, but one that could change our world.

Derek Kauneckis, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, wants to design a set of policies that encourage that kind of innovation. But doing so requires weighing policies that spur innovation against concerns about how autonomous systems impact privacy.

"Getting that balance that protects the privacy of individuals yet doesn't hinder the innovation that we want to see occur around this technology is a very delicate balance," Kauneckis said.

As part of Nevada's recent designation as a test site for unmanned aerial systems, the Federal Aviation Administration tasked the state with developing regulatory policies regarding privacy. For Kauneckis, a researcher focused on privacy issues and innovation policy, this gives Nevada an exciting opportunity to experiment with different approaches to the question.

Currently, more than 40 states have introduced bills addressing various issues surrounding autonomous systems, including privacy, and Kauneckis is closely following the development of policy—and public reaction—in various other states and counties.

"We really do want to understand what's worked elsewhere and what hasn't," he said. "What are the particular concerns for Nevada; what's generalizable for other states. We want technology that anybody anywhere is going to accept."

Gaining broad acceptance of autonomous systems will require a set of policies that address concerns specific to how the new technology interfaces with humans.

"Policy concerns around the technology itself are different from the information being collected," Kauneckis said. "We feel like we have control over our laptops and cellphones even if someone looks at that data. We don't have agency over these autonomous systems. That's a really important cognitive mechanism in terms of how people relate to the world around them."

From the tongue-in-cheek drone hunting licenses being debated in one Colorado city to the informal data destruction policy governing information collected by the Sheriff's Office in Mesa County, Ariz., local governments are already wading into the thorny questions of data management and privacy posed by autonomous systems technology.

"The same way we're experimenting with technology to see what works, we need to experiment with policy to see what works," Kauneckis said. "One of the strengths of the American system of public policy is we have so much local governance. Maybe Tahoe has a different policy than somewhere else and that allows you to see what works, what doesn't and why."

Successful policy, for Kauneckis, can be judged partially by how much innovation it stimulates. That innovation, in turn, will influence how policy unfolds.

"There needs to be constant engagement with the public," he said. "New sensors are going to go up all the time, so what's actually being monitored is going to change. We really need to understand the development of effective policy as a back and forth feedback mechanism between the technology and the public."

Policies that are sensitive to local conditions and flexible enough to evolve with changing technologies and applications that can help autonomous systems reach their potential to aid in precision agriculture, environmental monitoring, fire suppression or search and rescue. Those are areas Kauneckis is interested in, but what drives his interest in policy research is a commitment to fostering innovation.

"I'm excited about the applications no one's thought of yet. I'm excited about the ones that aren't out there yet that someone's going to create," he said. "I hope it's going to change in ways that nobody is even imaging right now."

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