More than 600,000 drones are registered with the FAA in the United States, and drone ownership continues to grow. The rapid rise of the technology has been a boon to many industries including residential & commercial real estate, agriculture, architecture, engineering, and construction, to name a few. Social media has allowed photos & videos taken via drone spread to millions of devices like wildfire. People have seen the pictures. They’ve watched the videos. They’ve read articles about retailers conducting drone delivery tests. Yet, despite the rapidly increasing public awareness of drone technology, relatively few citizens seem to have experienced the sounds and sights of a drone flight in-person. If you are one of the many citizens concerned about your privacy as more of these devices take to the air, take comfort. Drones are not going to affect your privacy in any meaningful way.
Drones Aren’t Particularly Sneaky
Have you ever been surprised by someone sneaking up on you from behind who is full throttle on a John Deere riding lawnmower? Didn’t think so. You might equate drones with spy gadgets that are more at home in a James Bond film, but this couldn’t be further from reality. In fact, if you are truly worried about cameras invading your privacy, silent and discrete cell phones and SLR cameras with zoom capability likely pose a far greater threat. Drones are noisy, cumbersome and have short battery lives, most lasting somewhere between 20-25 minutes. If someone were really trying to invade your privacy, you would notice the drone long before it got close enough to do anything. If one is worried about drones that fly far enough away to be inaudible, he or she should also be worried about helicopters, airplanes, and satellites. In other words, most privacy fears amount to much ado about nothing.
Why most drone privacy fears amount to much ado about nothing. Or, why Washington politicians love the subject.
Solutions in Search of Problems
As has often happened when a newsworthy technological innovation quickly makes a big splash, opportunistic politicians have attempted to seize on some of these public anxieties to make hay with constituents. In May, 2017 a bipartisan group of senators including Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) offered a solution to some of the missing problems regarding drones in the form of a bill known as the Drone Federalism Act. According to Feinstein, “State, local, and tribal governments have a legitimate interest in protecting public safety and privacy from the misuse of drones…This bill allows communities to create low-altitude speed limits, local no-drone zones or rules that are appropriate to their own circumstances.” Although this language might seem benign at first glance, it does go a long way toward highlighting legislator ignorance regarding what drones actually do. Do you remember the Speeding Drone Crisis of 2017? I don’t either.
Perhaps the scariest element of this piece of legislation is its affirmation that the federal government “will respect private property rights to the airspace immediately above a person’s property, which includes the first 200 feet”, the same first 200 feet where the most compelling drone photography often takes place. The language of this bill seems to overlook an important question and consideration, that is, does flying a drone 200 feet above a property create more of a privacy threat than, say, driving a car 200 feet in front of a property? This determination seems like it would be far from an open-and-shut case.
I’m sure right now your wheels are spinning, and yes, it’s possible to dream up a scenario in which one could use a drone to invade another’s privacy. But this same approach could be applied to just about anything. What about regulation on binoculars or telescopes? These “old” technologies would seem to pose a far greater privacy threat, no? Severe regulations on these devices don’t exist because they are known and understood by just about everyone, and it is the fear of the unknown that seems to be driving governments to haphazardly enact paranoia-easing rules and laws. Most drone laws, privacy and otherwise, seems to address the fear of what legislators think could occur, rather than solve any problem resulting from things that actually do happen.
While federal regulations aren’t yet in place for drone privacy issues, it is a topic that comes up frequently and future legislation could pose a serious threat to both the drone industry and businesses and consumers who benefit from the technology. There are calls for the FAA to address this in a manner similar to how they control the physical airspace, so unless sustained efforts are made to educate the public about what drones can and cannot do, we can unfortunately expect to see something materialize in Washington over the coming years.
“Most drone laws, privacy and otherwise, seems to address the fear of what legislators think could occur, rather than solve any problem resulting from things that actually do happen”.
State & Local Privacy-Based Laws and Regulations
Currently, a whopping 31 states have regulations that concern drone usage. Notable recent bills that have been passed by state governments include:
- California’s drone laws, for example, prohibit any attempts to capture a party that has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their current location. Whether photos or videos get recorded is actually irrelevant to this law. The potential for an invasion of privacy is enough for the drone operator to run into legal trouble.
- The Texas Privacy Act also includes drones in its verbiage. It’s illegal to use drones for surveillance purposes and includes people and private property in its regulations. Distributing photos or videos from a drone used for spying is also illegal.
- Senate Bill 319 in Kansas addresses the potential for stalking or harassing someone with a drone. The bill includes both dwellings and occupied vehicles, as well as other areas that have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Specifically, two incidents where your privacy is breached by the same drone operator establishes the basis for a stalking or harassment charge.
- Wisconsin’s laws cover two areas for drones. The first prohibits taking pictures of nude or semi-nude people, while the second offers more broad privacy protections. It’s a Class A misdemeanor if a drone operator has an intent to record or observe someone when they’re in a place that’s expected to remain private.
Air Your Concerns
If you’re currently in a state without drone-specific laws, refer to the harassment, surveillance, trespassing and stalking laws in the state’s legal code. If there ever were a concern, some drone owners’ behavior could fall under these laws, so you don’t need to worry about not having recourse in court if it becomes necessary. Privacy laws already exist. The last thing the public needs is new and redundant legislation designed to single out a specific medium. Perhaps most important, make sure to reach out to your state lawmakers and encourage them to familiarize themselves the realities of the technology, rather than indulge in science-fiction paranoia, and tell them to avoid enacting any innovation-stifling legislation at all costs. You can find out how to contact your specific representatives by using the Congress.gov portal.