Drones are theoretically awesome – they are great fun to fly, they make you look cool in front of your friends, and you can take videos of things that would be otherwise inaccessible.
That last point can be a sore one for some people though, and there is undoubtedly a serious threat to personal privacy that arises from their usage. Why should you be able to film your neighbor doing an embarrassing dance routine in his back garden just because you have a drone? No doubt most sane people would agree that you shouldn’t be able to.
Here we take a look at five times drones have breached personal privacy.
Sports Game Drone Angers New Zealand Man
Drones are not just owned by individuals – they are also used by large companies and corporations.
For example, the New Zealand subsidiary of Sky TV recently got in hot water after attempting to broadcast footage of cricket match from the Wellington Basin Reserve stadium.
According to the New Zealand Herald, Sky’s drone flew within ten meters of a local resident’s apartment, with the complainant responding by “giving the drone the fingers”.
The man in question complained to the country’s Privacy Commission. He said he had not given consent for the drone to film, and at the time was unsure whether or not any footage of him and his property was being recorded or broadcast.
In their defense, Sky said told the commission that “despite how it appeared, the drone was not recording footage the entire time it was in the air,” adding “the drone had not recorded or broadcast images of the complainant, or the inside of his property [and] the TV control room did not view any footage of the complainant or his property”.
The laws in New Zealand changed in August 2015 – drone users must now have the consent of people and property owners before flying over them.
Individual Arrested Over Prostitution Claims
How much privacy should you be afforded if you’re breaking the law?
Although prostitution is legal in most of Europe, Latin America, and Australasia, in the United States and Canada it is still very much illegal.
According to NakedSecurity, a 75-year-old man from Oklahoma was arrested and prosecuted after a drone was used to capture a video of him in a car with a suspected sex worker. The woman was also prosecuted.
In the video, the drone reportedly hovers in front of the car’s windshield for more than a minute before the man in question realizes and drives off. The drone’s owner then turned the video over to the police, who made the arrests.
Whatever your moral opinions on the world’s oldest profession, there is a clear privacy debate to be had around drones being used to catch people who solicit such services. Amazingly, under Oklahoma law, it’s legal for private citizens to take footage via drones regardless of where it is taken – there is no city ordinance against flying a drone.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) recommended guidance says drones should only within line of sight, below 400 feet, stay at least 5 miles away from an airport or other manned aircraft, and avoid flying near people, stadiums, or other crowded places – though none of this is officially signed into law.
Numerous Celebrity Victims
Rich, famous, (almost) universally loved – what possible downside could there be to being a celebrity?
Well, the incessant paparazzi is one. This author is certainly no follower of celebrity news or entertainment gossip, but it’s hard not to feel at least some empathy for someone who can’t bend over to tie a shoelace with having their rear-end printed all over the cover of some attention-seeking magazine.
That said, the paparazzi is as old as the very notion of celebrity, and it can be managed to an extent. “The paps” can only take place in public spaces (unless you’re Kate Middleton) and a celebrity can hire a vast entourage to ensure their routes are clear ahead of their arrival.
The idea takes a whole new meaning when people can be snapped in the privacy of their own home by an unknown person who is likely sitting several miles away.
In recent years, we’ve seen them at Tina Turner’s wedding, Anne Hathaway’s wedding, in Miley Cyrus’ backyard, and over Kanye West’s swimming pool – as well as countless more examples.
Even if you don’t feel any sympathy, imagine that they could soon be over your house. Got an enemy at work? He could fly over to get some “dirt” on you. Your kid being bullied at school? Their bully could make their life hell at home as well is in the classroom. How about a would-be criminal sizing up your property for a break in? Prepare yourselves to be exploited…
Man Arrested for Shooting Down a Drone Over His Property
47-year-old Kentucky resident William Merideth did what many of us would probably like to do if we saw a drone hovering over our lawns – he picked up his gun and blew it out of the sky.
Unfortunately for William, he was promptly arrested on the grounds of “criminal mischief” and “wanton endangerment”.
The case made its way to court, where Judge Rebecca Ward threw it out, saying “I think it’s credible testimony that his drone was hovering two or three times over these people’s property, that it was an invasion of their privacy and that they had the right to shoot this drone”.
The man who owned the drone, David Boggs, told Arstechnica that he has data that proves his drone was more than 200 feet off the ground – considerably more than the witnesses said in the court hearing. He plans to get his case taken before a grand jury and is reportedly considering a civil suit against Mr Merideth.
The state of Kentucky is currently working on a new “Drone Harassment Bill”. It is scheduled to come into effect in 2016 and will make it illegal to “hover over or land on someone’s property with a drone, or use a drone in a way that causes alarm or seriously annoys someone while serving no legitimate purpose”.
Man Acquitted After Spying Through Doctor’s Window
You will have no doubt noticed from the examples so far that the way the law is applied from state to state and from country to country differs hugely.
For another example, take the case of David Beesmer, a 50-year-old salesman in New York. According to the Wall Street Journal, he was acquitted of all charges after initially being prosecuted for using a drone to spy into windows of a doctor’s office. The problem came to light after multiple patients complained to the authorities. Beesmer claimed he was just testing his device and that it couldn’t see through the building’s tinted windows.
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”, he said. “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.”
Are You Worried About Your Privacy?
What do you think is the future of individuals’ use of drones? Does the whole area need to be more tightly regulated, or are the existing laws sufficient? Do you even know the laws in your own country or state?
Maybe you think that drone-based invasions of privacy are something we will become accustomed to in the years ahead, much like we have adapted to Google’s near-permanent tracking of our location?
Let us know your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.