A Game of Drones and Ethics

By Corey Shulz

Drones are of increasing import in our society. Drones are used today on a much wider scale than they were even two to three years ago. As with any world-changing technology, drones harbor some growing pains as they slowly become commonplace in our society. For some, much like social media and the Internet before them, drones are perceived as posing a serious threat to privacy. Both private citizens and governmental agencies have the power to do bad, unethical things with drones. But so, too, do they have the power to do good. We must implement a series of laws and regulations that deter the former and encourage the latter.

Some states have taken measures to preserve a person’s privacy by enacting pieces of legislation that restrict what government agencies, such as law enforcement, and private individuals can do with drones and the data that they collect. So far, at least 38 states have enacted laws addressing issues related to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Many of those laws deal with restricting drone use as it applies to governmental agencies. And, while local governments are technically allowed to pass these pieces of legislation because of the power granted to local and state governments under the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has encouraged local jurisdictions to back away from enacting regulations that apply to drones, stating that the regulations that the FAA enacts “preempt local laws because ‘it’s well-known that the federal government regulates aircraft.’”

Now, irrespective of if drone laws are passed at the federal or state level, the United States government as a whole is still making a concerted effort to limit what drones are used for, at least for governmental purposes. Those who are fearful of widespread governmental surveillance of the US population via drones need not be. Because the truth is, with our current infrastructure, that sort of dystopia is simply not possible. What was possible under the scope of the USA PATRIOT Act and NSA surveillance (systematic monitoring and data collection of every person residing within the United States) is simply not possible with drones in the scope of our current infrastructure. The government can’t monitor everybody. Of course that doesn’t mean that everything the government does with drones is legal or within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which sets out the basis of illegal search and seizure in this country. We still have room to improve how government agencies use drones, and ensure that they are used within the scope of the law. That should, however, naturally get better over time.

In regards to privacy and drones, however, what should be more concerning than governmental overreach is the private use of drones for data collection. In general, government agencies tend to follow orders given by the Congress, Executive Branch and state legislatures. But, the average person won’t read those rules or often times even know how to interpret them. Have you ever tried to read a bill? They are often convoluted and, to quote retired Daily Show host Jon Stewart, “designed to obscure and distract.” And, to be frank, those who would use the surveillance capabilities of drones to do harm are those who are willing to ignore laws. It’s also likely that the person taking illegal footage will not get caught in the act, be it before, during, or after. It’s hard to catch a drone pilot obtaining illicit footage. For instance, DJI Inspire drones have a range of up to two kilometers. Combined with a 4K camera, and first-person view mode, the pilot of one such drone can be hard or even impossible to track down. Private citizens can now become private investigators (or stalkers) with a technology that is increasingly common. Private businesses, too, which the FAA has rules of operation for, aren’t necessarily always going to adhere to those rules and regulations, in addition to local laws. While government agencies have accountability and oversight by law, private citizens and businesses have no such thing to speak of.

Thus, states should pass legislation to drastically limit what private citizens and businesses can do with UAV technologies. Using that technology within the law (for non-illicit personal and commercial purposes) should be completely legal. But, using that same technology for illegal activities should carry heavy fines and penalties. Because the government can’t monitor illegal drone use easily, these hefty fines would serve as a deterrent to stop a crime before it happens, with those who actually get caught serving as examples for those who otherwise would commit illicit activity with UAV technology. You should still be able to use a drone to do anything you’d normally be able to do legally, of course.

Drones have the potential to be a powerful force for good in the world. But, where there is light there is also darkness. Peoples’ privacy can be taken away with drones; illicit activities become easier to achieve. So, we should encourage safe and innovative use of drones while severely restricting using this advanced technology for unethical and illegal purposes. The pros of having drones in our society far outweigh the cons, and most people won’t deny that. But, unethical things may always be done with this technology. Be it one person stalking another or a government agency committing illegal search and seizure, unethical things can be done with drones as with any other technology with the power to fundamentally change the way our society operates. Even though we may fear the bad things that may come with drones, we should embrace the good while minimizing the bad. It’s the best way forward.