Drones and Privacy

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says that more than 550,000 drones were registered in the first nine months after a registration rule went into effect in August 2016, and the number of registrations continues to increase by 2,000 per day. They expect that there may be millions of the small unmanned aircraft in the skies in the near future.

Drones are popular with businesses and hobbyists, but many of the people on the ground below are less enthusiastic, including:

Although there are laws about the operation of drones they are primarily concerned with safety, not privacy. Current FAA regulations relate to “weight, speed, altitude, certification for commercial users and other flight restrictions” but not privacy.

In one drone privacy case, a New York man was arrested for using a drone to peer into the windows of a doctor’s office. He claimed that he was simply testing the drone and it could not see through the tinted windows. The man was ultimately acquitted of all charges. Brendan Schulman, a New York attorney who specializes in drone-related cases, said it was one of the first cases to test how existing privacy laws could be applied to drones. “This case shows there’s an existing legal framework to address misconduct with a drone. This person didn’t do anything wrong, but the fact the prosecutor could use an existing surveillance statute to address the alleged privacy invasion shows us we don’t need drone-specific legislation.”

The American Civil Liberties Union raises issues about the use of drones by individuals, corporations, law enforcement and government agencies saying, “deployed without proper regulation, drones equipped with facial recognition software, infrared technology, and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations would cause unprecedented invasions of our privacy rights.”

The FAA regulates where drones may fly, but privacy matters are not clear cut. Many states are enacting legislation to limit where photos and videos may be taken, resulting in a patchwork of regulations. According to Consumer Reports, “Authority is split between the federal government and the states. And no one currently has the authority to broadly protect privacy by preventing drones from flying over people’s homes.”