More News:

January 12, 2015

Should you drone on?

As technology explodes, privacy concerns rise

Attaching a GoPro camera to an unmanned aerial vehicle – more commonly known as a drone – can reward its owner with some spectacular sights.

The YouTube videos capturing mountainous landscapes, city skylines and gorgeous coastlines are plentiful.

But so are the fears associated with the latest technology, which provides a new tool to nosy neighbors, Peeping Toms and, perhaps most worrisome, public officials.

Back in November, residents at a high-rise apartment building in San Jose complained about an alleged Peeping Tom using a drone to spy on them, while last summer, a 23-year-old woman in Connecticut was arrested after she allegedly attacked a drone operator who was flying his unit over a beach. 

As drone sales skyrocket, state legislatures across the country are trying to regulate drone usage – both recreationally and governmentally.

Twenty states have passed laws restricting the use of drones, including 10 last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. An additional 25 states considered legislation in 2014, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“The greatest privacy threats are that an individual might be tracked by drone without his or her consent, whether that’s a police department tracking suspects without warrants or exes trying to keep track of their former partners,” said Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center.

Many of the new laws restrict the way law enforcement agencies utilize drones and require police to obtain a warrant before collecting and using data. Other laws, such as one passed in Tennessee, make it illegal for any individual to conduct intentional surveillance of a person or property.

Yet, neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey has any drone laws on the books, leaving privacy rights up in the air.

A New Jersey bill restricting drone use by police and fire authorities needed only the signature of Gov. Chris Christie to become law, but the Republican pocket-vetoed it last January. But a similar bill is moving through the state Assembly, having advanced out of committee in October.

That bill would require authorities to obtain a warrant to use a drone except in emergencies like active fires, missing-person searches and cases of probable cause. It also makes it illegal for anyone to equip a drone with a weapon.

“This is really so people feel comfortable and know how it is being used,” said Assemblyman Daniel Benson, D-Mercer County, one of four prime sponsors. “It would require reporting on a yearly basis to the Office of the Attorney General so we can see how it is being used. That way we can have transparency in their use.”

Despite Christie vetoing similar legislation, Benson said a bill will pass sooner rather than later if the provisions are right. 

“The governor’s point of view was this really isn’t a problem yet,” Benson said. “My feeling is when you set up the rules of the road ahead of time, that will allow some governments to feel more comfortable. They’ll now know what the rules of use are.”

Legislation has moved more slowly in Pennsylvania. Despite several drone bills being introduced during the previous legislative session, none made it out of committee. 

State Rep. Angel Cruz, D-Philadelphia, plans to re-introduce a bill requiring law enforcement officials to obtain a court order to use a drone for surveillance. He said he wants the bill to serve as a launching point for a discussion on the privacy issues surrounding drones.

“I think it’s taken it a little too far with the invasion of our privacy,” Cruz said. “If it’s not worded into a law, it’s really, really vague. It’s too much freedom for people to go into other people’s privacy.”

State Rep. Marguerite Quinn, R-Bucks County, who co-sponsored a similar bill, stressed the importance of enacting early regulations. Lawmakers tried for years to regulate cellphone use by drivers but watched the technology advance faster than their legislative discussions. 

“Once the genie is out of the bottle,” Quinn said, “it’s tough to get him back in.”

By all accounts, drone sales are exploding. The most basic models can be purchased on for less than $75, making them easily accessible. The more costly machines can run several thousand dollars.

The Consumer Electronics Association projects drone sales will approach $130 million this year, a 55 percent increase from 2014. Within five years, revenue could exceed $1 billion.

The Parrot Corp., one of the leading drone manufacturers, reported its drone revenue rose by 130 percent in the third quarter of last year. Retail drones represented 87 percent of its drone revenue.

“Whether it’s just the pure joy of flying or trying to make their jobs easier, I think that’s part of what is capturing the imagination of people as young as kids going up to whatever age,” said Mark Aitken, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone trade organization. “That’s the thing. They’re readily accessible. They’re pretty user-friendly in terms of actual operations.”

Aitken lauded the use of drones for search-and-rescue missions, hobbies and potential commercial use. Yet, he acknowledged there is a responsibility to ensure drones are used safely, noting that privacy rights are “something Americans cherish.”

Asked about the drone regulations being considered by state legislatures across the country, Aitken pointed to the AUVSI’s code of conduct, which urges drone users to respect the privacy of others, comply with all laws and operate drones in a manner that does not present undue risk to individuals or property. He also said there are “robust laws based on the Fourth Amendment that ensure privacy.”

“We know that there are local, state and federal laws that are in place to protect people’s privacy,” Aitken said. “We can’t control what an individual does with any sort of technology. If there’s mal intent, I don’t think there’s any type of law that can persuade that person one way or the other if they’re intending to do that.”

Andy Hoover, a legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, listed various privacy concerns held by the ACLU, including continual surveillance and the collection of data unrelated to a warranted search. But he also stressed that intruding law enforcement agencies are a greater threat than nosy neighbors. 

“Current law generally protects people from that type of invasion of their privacy,” Hoover said. “Whether it’s a person putting their face through your window or a drone through your window, there is a law that protects people. If the government can make it stronger, we’re open to hearing the discussion of the legislature.” 

While states consider the privacy rights endangered by drones, the federal government has focused much of its attention on determining how commercial drones can effectively share airspace.

The Federal Aviation Administration is developing a set of guidelines outlining how, where and by whom commercial drones can be flown. 

Once those rules are drawn – and most commercial drones granted FAA approval to take flight – drones might really swarm the skies, delivering packages, monitoring crops and conducting air surveys, among dozens of other commercial uses.

A 2013 economic impact study conducted by AUVSI revealed that commercial drones would provide a $13.6 billion economic impact and create 70,000 jobs three years after full integration, Aitken said. Over a 10-year span, the economic impact jumps to $82 billion and more than 100,000 jobs created. 

“This is the next frontier in America,” Aitken said. “I don’t think we’ve seen something like this in the air industry since the early ‘60s with the space program.”