Ethics and Privacy of the Dangerous Toy Drone

By Ian VanLeeuwen

Imagine looking out from your apartment complex window a few stories up and seeing a drone right outside looking in. Imagine if you don’t know anything about drones. Imagine if the only thing you knew about drones is that they carry cameras. What would you think? And how would you react? Having a drone flying outside your private home could seem daunting and scary. You could feel like you have just been watched which makes you feel irritated and awkward. In all reality, your 16 year old neighbor just got this drone for Christmas and decided to take it for a flight, with no intention to film anybody. Here is where the confusion of privacy begins. Because the pilot is not always visible to a person who is affected by a drone, people will assume the worst.

There are only three things involved in a drone flight: The controller of the drone, the drone, and who or what is influenced by the activities of the drone. “The ethical issues emerge as the result of the interaction of how the drone is used by a user in contrast with how those who experience the way the drone is used by the user.” (Wilson). Therefore, it is all about the intention the pilot has to fly his drone. This leaves blank spaces and assumptions that are only up to who is influenced by the drone. The FAA has tried to suppress these altercations by making “Fly for Fun” and “Privacy” guidelines for the pilot but these issues still rise up.

Technology columnist Nick Bilton published a piece, When Your Neighbor’s Drone Pays an Unwelcome Visit” in early 2016. He had never had a drone encounter until the incident that inspired him to write this piece. He had heard stories of drone encounters like in July of 2015, a man in Kentucky was arrested for shooting down a neighbor’s drone for ambiguously trying to film his 16 year-old daughter by the pool. Bilton had empathy for the man shooting the drone because he felt “how rude and intrusive” the drone pilot was being. His true feelings about drones didn’t come to life until after a drone incident of his own. He unexpectedly had a drone watch him in his home office for about 15 seconds then fly off. He had a lot of the same feelings as stated above: like he was spied on, awkward, harassed. Now what we can take from this story is when you are flying a drone, you have no idea what the impact you have on other people is going to be like. Most people will just assume the worst and that’s how you get your drone shot down.

The advantages of regulating private drone use are as follows: stop the actual criminals from doing criminal things. Easy enough. But when you try and search for evidence either online or asking around, it is difficult for anyone to have a clear story of invasion. In Anita Ramasastry article, “Drones as the New Peeping Toms?” was the best article I could find for a story of actual invasion. The article begins with the story of a woman and her apartment in Seattle. She claimed that a drone has watched her in her apartment a few stories up when she was not fully clothed. She immediately contacted the Seattle police and a chase was now on its way. But even this is now all speculation. As with all the other articles on the internet, because there isn’t much proof the drones actually were there to capture indecent photos of her. To end the story, it was actually a false alarm. Of course it was. Joe Vaughn and his co-pilot own a drone imaging based company and were onsite filming for a local developer about to build an office building.

Now, articles like this all raise the same question: So can other people use drones to spy on us for bad reasons now? To answer that, yes, they probably can. But there is little to show that it actually happens on a regular basis. I believe that private drones don’t show as great of a threat as people might think. More evidence of this is that a pilot most likely won’t fly their short-lasting battery powered drone 20 stories in the air during the day hoping that they catch you getting out of the shower at the perfect moment. I guess some people have more drive than others but that seems like a lot of work.

But let’s take a different perspective, the British view of the situation. Most of the discussion of drones comes from the American point of view and the FAA. The British seem just as concerned about drones as us. But again we don’t see a lot of actual evidence of their danger. An article literally titled “Drones Being Used ‘to Harass People and Commit Crime’” doesn’t carry any evidence of anyone actually being affected by drone use negatively. Again it is all speculation.

Former head of the UK’s Intelligence center, GCHQ, Sir David Omand, stated that his fear of drones was always what could happen to a crowd of people in a terrorist attack. Now we see the bigger picture of drone regulation. Therefore, preparing ourselves for something a lot bigger than peeping Tom drones.. In a post 9/11 world we do in fact have to become concerned about the unthinkable. But how does regulation on toy quadcopters could solve this problem? I’m not entirely clear.

To sum up, let’s remind our fellow drone pilots that their actions and intentions may be seen differently from the person on the other side of the window. How do we solve this? Let’s use the word “Ethics”. As the controller of the drone, it is ethical for you not to fly it in someone else’s backyard or near their windows. Always try and stay in sight of your drone and make yourself visible. What I mean is if your drone “accidentally” is flying over a backyard pool with girls sunbathing, and the cops find you hiding out in your basement, that’s not going to look good on your behalf. But if you are near your drone in an adjacent backyard could probably get away with it. Nevertheless, these privacy issue will probably not become fixed in the next year or two. It’s going to take some time for people to become educated on the idea of drones. In the meantime, we get to keep reading articles about someone’s near death exposure of themselves to a drone that actually was just checking the weather.