With Cameras Come Consequences

A small little drone is not very intimidating if you just look at the craft itself. For five hundred dollars you can get a drone that can be carried around in a case smaller than a seven inch tablet and  still carry a GoPro. While terrorist usage of drones is a concern, most people are worried about the drone’s payload, not the actual vehicle itself. People are excited about the prospects of drones not merely because they can be operated remotely, but because they can carry additional sensors and objects as well. The differences between a drone with only operation-specific sensors and a drone with a camera are monumental.

A UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that can record high definition video sounds great, but it immediately brings up the problem of privacy. As drones become more widespread and the FAA presumably nears their deadline for incorporation of drones into the public airspace, it is imperative that we examine drones’ implications for our rights and our ability to carry out our everyday lives. Drones’ maneuverability and ease of use allows them to film in a manner that has never really been seen before. As a result, it is necessary to examine what changes are needed to make sure the law supports the beneficial uses of drones and discourages the unwanted uses. Drones are not merely carriers of cameras and sensors; they also are ethical and legal harbingers.

Camera-bearing drones bring up some big concerns. Drones have been used during big events to help with crime prevention, detection, and handling. Flying high above festivals, drones in the UK have kept tabs on suspicious individuals and helped to ensure public safety. Drones have been spotted at political rallies in the US as well, and are thought to have been performing a similar purpose. In India, drones have also been used to survey sensitive areas. There is a fine line between helping promote safety and monitoring in a way that individuals no longer have a right to their own privacy.

Katz v. U.S. ruled warrantless wiretapping to be unconstitutional and it established that an individual has to have an expectation of privacy that society deems legitimate. Should individuals feel like their privacy is being infringed upon when there is a drone high up in the sky observing? Is this drone use unconstitutional? The ambiguity in the law makes it unclear. It seems pretty clear that the government tracking of every individual with drones is an invasion of privacy. In U.S. v. Jones, Antoine Jones won a case where the government used a GPS tracker on his car without acquiring a warrant. The invasion of his private property was why Antoine won the case, not the gathering of information about him. Since drones could observe people in the public space, but still gather information about their every move to an unprecedented degree, we should make sure regulations are put in place to make clear what is and what is not allowed. Many states have already taken these matters into their own hands, but it makes sense for the government to put some overarching privacy regulations in place. It is important to realize that drones are just providing a new perspective on privacy because of how they enable cheap surveillance; they do not need to be banned out of the skies.

The government is not the only possible abuser of privacy. While the legality of drones at the moment is very hand-wavy, we can expect to see many issues emerging with people feeling their privacy has been abused by individuals’ or organizations’ drones. Individuals are entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy, something that perhaps drones will abuse. California recently passed a bill that makes it illegal to use a drone to invade the privacy of another. While it makes sense that people should have concerns about their privacy and drones’ compromising the status quo, we also have to worry about our first amendment rights. Drones should be allowed to be used to film publicly as there is little difference in output between filming from your car and filming with a drone. The angles and perspective might be a bit different, but as long as the subject matter is of a manner that is currently accepted, it should be allowed.

While UAVs are not so scary without a camera, there are still some ethical concerns with using them. While crashing a small quadcopter doesn’t sound dangerous, it is still something that needs to be taken into account before flying. Drones are dangerous when flown close to other vehicles that carry individuals and have bigger consequences if they crash. While UAVs can bring a whole new dimension to journalism and while they can be incredibly helpful in disaster management and land surveillance, it is important that the operator be aware of the possible consequences of his/her actions. Consequences are real enough that journalists should not use drones when they do not need them. Even though they are far cheaper than helicopters and can be operated with little difficulty, there are certain risks involved with using a UAV that needs to be balanced with the results one gets from using it. Regulations need to take account of these considerations while ideally still allowing casual users of small virtually harmless drones to fly without the operator going through conniptions to get a special airworthiness certification.

The issues at play here are definitely quite complicated and controversial. While some legislation is needed to manage how drones should be regulated, it is also important to make sure that first and fourth amendments are not compromised. Drones are great tools that will likely help greatly in many aspects of life, but if they are not properly controlled their advent could be accompanied by enormous repercussions. While the government needs to be prevented from using drones to keep a strict eye on every individual from the skies, on a smaller level, individuals need to be encouraged to use drones ethically and pragmatically. Civil drone use will add a lot to society. Hopefully thoughtful legislation will prevent it from taking away our liberties while encouraging innovation.