3D Robotics

Could domestic drones spur tougher privacy laws?


Excellent article by Evan Ackerman at IEEE Spectrum. It's worth noting that in the US, at least, law enforcement already needs warrants to inspect private property beyond what would normally be visible from the street, to protect citizen's "reasonable expectation of privacy" in their own back yards:

Have you ever been spied on by a surveillance drone? No? Are you sure? Maybe it looked like a hummingbird. Or an insect. Or maybe it was just really high up. Maybe there's one looking in your window right now, and if so, there's no law that says it shouldn't.

In a recent article in the Stanford Law ReviewRyan Calo discusses how domestic surveillance drones would fit into the current legal definitions of privacy (and violations thereof), and how these issues could inform the future of privacy policy. The nutshell? Surveillance robots have the potential to fundamentally degrade privacy to such an extent that they could serve as a catalyst for reform. 

Domestic surveillance robots aren't as much of an issue now as they could be, thanks mostly to the stick-in-the-muddedness of the FAA that keeps unmanned aircraft from doing anything exciting. But eventually, that's going to change, and there are already precedents (legal ones) for how domestic agencies might (read: will) start using robots. Basically, there seems to be essentially no legal restrictions which would prevent the police from having drones flying around all the time, watching people.

Clearly, this is something that we as a society should discuss, and we may decide this kind of surveillance should be illegal, or at least restricted to some extent, especially since it's getting easier and easier to build or buy camera-capable flying robots. In the near future, celebrities (like me) will be constantly surrounded by a swarm of face-reading, photo-snapping autonomous robots that will necessitate the development of anti-surveillance drone drones, loaded up with little miniature air-to-air missiles, which themselves are little flying robots.

Of course, all this goes beyond surveillance and drones. We've got these same sorts of legal issues popping up all over the place with regard to to robotics, as technology fast outpaces the limited amount of foresight that was employed when coming up with policies meant to manage current technological issues as opposed to future ones. And as we've mentioned before, there's a risk that reactionary (as opposed to proactive) policies could seriously undermine the robotics industry, which is why forethought is so important.

You can read the rest of Ryan Calo's article, "The Drone as Privacy Catalyst," at the link below.

The Stanford Law Review article is here

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  • These issues could come up without ever needing a drone- just use a balloon or a kite to carry the camera.

  • Moderator

    Funny how these things come along in groups, like buses. Here's a privacy concern that might hit home.

    Arkansas may be taxing people using aerial images http://www.suasnews.com/2011/12/10684/arkansas-may-face-taxation-by...

    Ok so the company behind this Pictometry is looking to claw back some cash from its flights over the USA, its a task that could be undertaken at a local level with a simple machine.

  • Robert, it's a similar concept.  It's legal to own a camera, and take pictures of my house. However, if you take a picture of my house, and put it on a real estate site, and try to sell it as your own, then it's fraud, and illegal.  Just like it's legal to own a quad and fly it, but if you use it to take pictures, and invade people's privacy, then it's not so legal.

    And as far as traffic cameras go, they can take incidental pictures of cars and people's houses, but if the authorities want to use these pictures to convict someone in a crime, then the test of legality, and infringement of rights have to be done.(i.e. through a court of law)  There will be legal challenges to such use.

  • Taking pictures of the front of your house is always legal.  People do not have any reasonable expectations that people not take photos/video of the front of their house.  Look at Google Streetview.

    Your car may be private owned property, but you don't have any expectation of privacy while driving it on a public road.

  • Robert, traffic cameras are pointed at peoples houses, in some cases, because the houses are part of the field of view.  As well, they point into your car, which is private property.

    ISgt. Ric, it used to be the governments needed good reasons, like risk to public safety, in order to pass restrictive laws, but ever since 9/11, anything goes.

  • @Ellison, traffic cameras are not the same thing.  They are taking photos in a public place.  It's non public places that are the issue here.  Police can freely watch the front of your house.  What they can't do is walk in your backyard.  However, the question is, are they allowed to stand on the public street, and control a drone to take pictures of your back yard?  That's the issue.

  • Moderator
    Restricting flights to recreational purposes, max 400', not over populated areas, line of sight...how is that not the same as banning?
    And in case you aven't noticed, te most restrictive country has been USA!
  • I see it very hard for them to pass laws to completely ban UAVs, especially in the US.  There's nothing dangerous or illegal about owning or flying UAVs.  It's the activities you do with them that counts.  I can, however, see them increasing regulations.

    The point is that the police force will want to use them to spy on citizens, and such invasion of privacy should be treated the same as wire taps.  Police should not be able to use them without getting a court's permission.  However, I think they already have traffic cameras proliferating every street corner, and I don't think they're needing to get court orders for them.  So UAVs with cameras may be treated, in the courts, in the same light as traffic cameras.

  • Moderator

    That Merseyside microdrone is a great pic, but its interesting to note that no UK Police force having tried and not liked sUAS continues to use them. I think the US Police are about to have a big learning experience.  (That particular Microdrone ended up in a river)

    The Aurora Skate just won a tidy Police contract but my best guess it that lots of Shadow sized airframes will be sold. They are after all the people sat at the table driving regulation over there.

    I have heard it said that simply banning privately owned UAS in the USA is the way forward and will prevent privacy problems.

    ACLU also had something to say on this subject earlier this week http://www.suasnews.com/2011/12/10599/aclu-report-on-domestic-drone...

    Quite cool that robots are making people think though.

    The bit about citizen journalism is quite right though, one persons freedom mission another's invasion of privacy.

    That French job  last year comes to mind.

    I'm firmly sat on the fence with the citizen journalism bit. I can see the benefits but can't help thinking the current publicity for it is vendor driven. I can also see how simple it will be for things to be abused.

    The hit rate for multicopter stuff has risen in the last couple of days on sUAS News!

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