Good piece in The Verge on policy and legal challenges presented by the spread of domestic drones
Calm before the swarm: domestic drones are here, but the law's still catching up
An explosion of advanced flying vehicles is about to hit the skies, but regulation lags way behind technology
There is little disagreement in the drone community that laws haven’t kept pace with the evolving technology. "Some of the uses are going to be scary," says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. "There is a technology called ARGUS which can view an entire city at once." The system, named for the hundred-eyed giant of Greek myth, can track the movements of every vehicle and person in a fifteen square mile radius. "It saves that data and so it has a real potential to build up a database of people’s comings and goings," says Stanley. "We don’t believe people should live in a society where the police can watch you at all times just in case you commit a crime."
But advocates for this budding industry say that it’s the laws around privacy which should change, rather than instituting new legislation aimed specifically at drones. "The fact that drones are capable of doing a lot of aerial surveillance at low cost wouldn’t be that big a deal, but for the fact that privacy law largely isn’t up to the task," says Ryan Calo, a professor of law at the University of Washington.
Calo points to cases like Florida vs Riley, where police used a helicopter to see into a greenhouse through missing panels on a roof, spotted marijuana plants, then used that as evidence to obtain a warrant. The Supreme Court ruled that the aerial search didn’t violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, because citizens can have no reasonable expectation of privacy of anything viewable from a public vantage. "That kind of doctrine will likely be applied to drones as well," said Calo.
The Virginia House and Senate recently passed a bill banning the use of drones by government and law enforcement for the next two years, and it’s now awaiting the governor’s signature. "I think there’s a sense of urgency," Donald McEachin, the Democratic state senator in Virginia who introduced this legislation, told the Daily Beast. "I think it’s important to get ahead on issues like these before they get out of control. We can imagine the problems that drones will bring in the future. I believe when the Founding Fathers wrote the Fourth Amendment, they never envisioned a low rider that could sit over your house and see things and hear things."
Another member of the Democratic caucus, speaking anonymously, joked to The Vergethat, "This legislation brought out supporters from the Tea Party and the ACLU. When those folks line up on the same side, you know it’s either a damn good idea, or the end times are here."
But Calo says the fatal flaw with legislation like the Virginia bill is that it is narrowly aimed at flying drones. "Why draft a bill that specifically regulates robots which fly through the air? Then it doesn’t pertain to the new machine someone invents that climbs up walls instead. The cameras are going to keep getting better. What needs to change are the privacy laws."