How will commercial drones affect privacy rights? We don’t know yet


Over the past few months drones have started littering the skies, used by consumers and businesses alike for taking photos of real estate to dropping off Amazon packages straight to your doorstep.

As commercial domestic drone use increases, many wonder about the privacy implications of having hundreds, if not thousands of these drones roaming the skies on a daily basis.

Federal efforts

(Remarkably) Congress has already started thinking about these issues. Rep. Ted Poe  introduced a bill designed to safeguard privacy rights from commercial drones, the Preserving American Privacy Act of 2013, warning that “companies could use drones for information gathering whether that is taking a photograph of your patio furniture or recording the make and model of your car.” 

The proposed law would make it a misdemeanor to use an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to photograph a person or their property without their explicit permission.  Sen. Ed Markey introduced a similar bill, the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, to provide privacy and civil liberties guidance and limitations  to the FAA regarding the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into United States airspace.

State and local efforts

States have also been struggling with how to handle the impending proliferation of private-use drones while the Federal Aviation Administration works on final drone use regulations. Charlottesville, VA., passed a law banning drones from its airspace earlier this month. Florida lawmakers are proposing that drone use would have to be authorized by the Department of Homeland Security

Non-governmental organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union generally agree with these efforts.  For instance, The Center for Democracy and Technology has called for private-use drones to constantly transmit location, speed and altitude data to local and federal authorities.

It’s a good thing that these issues are being debated even before widespread drone use because a post-conflict dispute resolution system for handling privacy violations, like the courts, is woefully inadequate.  

Federal courts tend to look at privacy violations and ask if the defendant “violated a reasonable expectation of privacy” - except that nine older, and generally out-of-touch men and women hardly constitute my first pick to determine what constitutes my reasonable expectation of privacy.