Imagine a neighbor’s drone hovering over your backyard while you’re sunbathing, or a commercially operated drone reading your license plate and tracking your car as you drive across town.
The hovering-drone scenario is already a reality, of course. A Kentucky man in July used his shotgun to destroy a drone flying over his property.
And businesses or government agencies could soon track vehicles through drone-mounted license plate readers, while the CIA has already begun tracking mobile phones through drone-mounted tracking devices. Privacy advocates say regulators should implement more rules of the road—or, more accurately, the air—before such technologies become as commonplace as smartphones.
While many people now carry smartphones that can record video, “drones are different, both in what they can do and where they can go, but also more generally [in] the types of technology you can put on them,” says Chris Calabrese, vice president for policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology.
“Any time there’s a new technology, there’s a question just of [what] the social norms and social expectations should be.” — Tobin Fisher, CEO of drone-maker Vantage Robotics
Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), raise “significant privacy issues,” according to privacy rights group Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Drone surveillance often occurs without the knowledge of the individual being monitored,” EPIC says on its site. “These vehicles can gather detailed information on individuals.”
For now, privacy advocates at organizations such as the CDT and EPIC are focusing their efforts on limiting government use of drones for surveillance and for carrying weapons. And makers of personal-use and commercial drones are arguing that new laws aren’t necessary.
Tobin Fisher, CEO of Vantage Robotics, a company that makes a drone embedded with a high-resolution video camera, says laws governing trespassing and spying already cover some of the creepiest potential uses of drones by businesses or individual operators.
“Any time there’s a new technology, there’s a question just of [what] the social norms and social expectations should be,” Fisher says. “Legislation is not necessarily needed.”
People have developed better etiquette for using smartphones in public over time, and drones will be no different, he says, adding that safety issues—drones crashing into people on the ground—are more important to address than privacy at this point.
When Fisher compares drone cameras and smartphone cameras, “I don’t really see why the camera above eye level is a bigger invasion of privacy,” he says. “I can come up with 1,000 times as many scenarios where you can get a cell phone into places inappropriately.”
Still, Fisher concedes that drones offer a level of anonymity for the operator that smartphone cameras do not. The drone industry will have to see “if there’s the equivalent of the Web troll that emerges—the drone troll who feels more comfortable breaking social norms,” he says.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s drone registration rules, announced in December, may counter trolling impulses. Registration will link drones to their owners and “give people pause” before they do something stupid with a drone, Fisher says.
While lawmakers in several states and cities have pushed for laws limiting drone use, government regulators have been focusing on developing best practices. To that end, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration has hosted a series of discussions with drone industry representatives and privacy groups.
Past NTIA attempts to broker privacy best practices in other areas haven’t always gathered consensus, but drone discussion participants are optimistic.
“There are a lot of good reasons drone operators should want to—and do want to—protect privacy,” CDT’s Calabrese says. “There’s a tremendous upside to this technology, once we can get beyond people’s legitimate privacy fears.”
Many drone-related businesses question whether drones present unique privacy issues when cameras are ubiquitous in public settings, says Lisa Ellman, a public-policy lawyer representing companies in the industry for law firm Hogan Lovells.
“There is a perception out there among the American public that drones are different, for one reason or another,” Ellman says. The NTIA discussions came “in response to people’s concerns.”
Many people in the drone industry support the NTIA process, she adds. A set of best practices could help correct a misperception about drones, and discourage restrictive local and state laws, she says.
The drone industry needs to educate the public about uses of drones, beyond a “my neighbor spying on me in my backyard” scenario, Ellman says. She highlighted potentially beneficial government uses of drones, including disaster response and infrastructure inspections.
“As the American people learn more about drones and drone technology, I think that they will come to appreciate the benefits and worry less about the privacy,” she said. Right now, “it’s this great unknown.”