Imagine that you are sitting in your backyard and a drone flies overhead. It hovers. The camera adjusts and looks right at you. Then it flies away. You are left wondering who is operating it and why. On a number of occasions, similar encounters with unknown drones had led to visceral (sometimes even violent) reactions from the person being observed. Perhaps the most infamous example is William Meredith, the self-proclaimed “drone slayer” who shot down a drone that flew over his residence in Kentucky where his young children were playing. A Kentucky court dismissed the charge of first-degree endangerment and criminal mischief against Meredith concluding that he had the right to shoot down the drone to protect his privacy.
Not long after Meredith’s encounter, a woman in Connecticut had a similar experience with a drone. When a drone flew over sunbathers at a public beach, she followed the drone to its operator and physically assaulted the operator. She was subsequently criminally prosecuted. The drone operator was told he could continue to do what he was doing because he was operating in a public space.
While drone technology today requires a human to exercise some input and oversight for safe operation, the autonomous capabilities of the technology already exist and are expanding. While society should certainly be cognizant of the privacy issues related to commercial and government use of drones, recreational use of drones also comes with a myriad of privacy issues.
The aerial and remote capabilities sever the connections that we as humans expect to have with the people we encounter in public space. This undermines one’s ability to assess context, measure trust, and determine the best recourse. Drones are likely to cause problems both with transparency and accountability. Drone technology undermines transparency because the drone can be operated at a distance from its pilot; drones also undermine accountability because in addition to not knowing who is operating the drone, it is also nearly impossible to communicate with the drone (i.e. its operator) and the person down below may not be able to simply walk away (e.g. Meredith – “the drone slayer”). These concerns will only grow as artificial intelligence driven automation in drones continues to grow and improve.
Another part of the problem with privacy and drones is the legislation response. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken a hard stance against regulating privacy as it relates to drones. Instead, the FAA informs commercial and hobbyist operators that they should be aware of local, state, and federal laws related to privacy before they fly the drone.
For now, it is important to remember that while use of drones by government agencies and big corporations raises a plethora of privacy questions, use of drones by our neighbors, friends, and enemies may also have an impact on one’s personal privacy that may be qualitatively worse.