Pilots of an Alitalia jumbo jet were startled recently, as they approached JFK International Airport to land, to see small robotic aircraft in the distance - a sighting that still has not been fully explained.

Such aerial drones are about to become extremely common sights. Whereas the Federal Aviation Administration is working on a plan to integrate them safely into commercial air space, the crafts' biggest intrusions are likely to be on privacy.

Drones have been controversial because of their use to attack insurgents and terrorists abroad. Potential civilian uses for the devices are open-ended, from map-making, to traffic control to myriad law enforcement functions.

Laws covering civil aerial surveillance last were visited by Congress in the 1980s and they are woefully outdated relative to the coming age of drones and to the current age of social media, in which images instantly uploaded to the Internet can cause a world of damage.

U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts has introduced the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, which is designed to protect privacy from intrusion by what Mr. Markey called "flying, spying robots."

The bill would require an entity seeking an FAA drone license to specifically state the scope of the device's data collection, how the data will be used, whether it will be sold to third parties and how long it will be retained.

Law enforcement agencies would be required to obtain warrants for drone surveillance, and to state beforehand what they intend to do with collected data not related to a crime.

Except for data directly related to criminal investigations, all of the licenses, data collection statements and related materials would be posted online by the FAA.

The bill is a good start to protect Americans' privacy, which will have to be fine-tuned as civilian drones become commonplace.