What Do Drones Mean to the Future of Personal Privacy?

Last year was a big year for drones causing many of us to sit up and take notice, and 2015 should be even bigger. This leads to many privacy issues that we need to start seriously considering.

Any examination of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) is a moving target. The news is peppered with drone stories. Mexican cartels are moving product across the border with drones. Drones are crashing on the White House lawn. There was a thirty-mile no UAV zone imposed around Super Bowl XLIX. In Hong Kong, you can even order chocolate and have it delivered by drone.

Say the word “drone” and you’re likely to get any one of a half-dozen reactions. Drones or UAVs elicit debate, not just about the United State’s use of them in executing the so-called War on Terror, but their possible role domestically. There’s also the threat of personal drones invading our privacy, which is already enraging bystanders.

You can’t really blame technology. You’re going to experience annoying human behavior regardless of whether it’s loud bass at 2 AM or a ringing cell phone in a movie theater. Simply, it’s going to take a while for society in general to accept mainstream drone use.

But, the most pressing questions that arise from UAV use aren’t typically concerned with what they can do or how people are using them, rather what they mean to our privacy once they gain that mainstream acceptance.

What’s Going to Happen to My Privacy?

If you have a long enough memory, you probably remember when we as a society had far greater privacy than we do now. Unfortunately, personal privacy is probably going to continue to erode, as technology becomes more persistently invasive.

According to a report published in 2013 by the Congressional Research Service, the FAA expects 30,000 UAVs to take to the skies by 2030.

If you’re thinking 30,000 doesn’t seem like very much, that’s because it isn’t, even the FAA acknowledges that it’s a “relatively small” number. But also, keep in mind this: these simply aren’t the drones you get your dad for Christmas or Father’s Day. This includes the military, police, government agencies, corporations, and so on.

Drones already have the perception of being invasive; more so than giving everyone a camera or putting GPS receivers in everything. We don’t have to don our tinfoil hats to imagine what it will be like if law enforcement is allowed to buy old military surveillance drones.

It’s not too far a stretch, considering the Department of Homeland Security is known for lending them to local police departments.

The Fourth Amendment and You

Of course, there’s always the Fourth Amendment, which is there to protect Americans from unreasonable search and seizures. The funny thing about that though is, as technology changes and we become more accustomed to surrendering more of our privacy, our concept of what is considered unreasonable changes as well.

Twenty years ago, it would have been unheard of to allow a company like Google to track our locations, but now that’s exactly what happens all the time, and we accept this as a tradeoff for having this kind of technology in the palm of our hands.

Think about it, wherever you go, you have GPS in your hip pocket, allowing your location to be pinpointed to within a few feet. Even if you have your GPS turned off, your phone is talking to cell towers, or scanning for WiFi access points.

The point is, as these technologies became widely-accepted, our perceptions changed and resistance to them largely disappeared. So, it’s not hard to imagine what seems unreasonable today, may not be ten, twenty, or thirty years from now.

Drones Make Searching (and Spying) Easier

Then there’s what defines search. What you do behind closed doors and shuttered windows is one thing, and usually requires a warrant to discover, but step outside your house and its all eyes on you.

The immediate areas around your home are called curtilage, and anything beyond that is considered open fields.

Now, you are afforded many of the same rights within your curtilage as when you’re inside your home, i.e. police typically need a warrant to search them. The thing about curtilage is however, you really need to make an effort to screen it off – fences, shrubs, walls – to block the view from the open fields, i.e streets and sidewalks.

That said, law enforcement can use airplanes and helicopters to fly within FAA airspace to peer at your curtilage. They don’t need a warrant to do this.

Helicopters and airplanes are very effective for seeing everything from overhead, but they can only stay aloft for a short time, require fuel and maintenance, highly trained pilots, and are otherwise fairly expensive to operate. Also, while helicopters are great for stationary surveilling, they’re not exactly inconspicuous. You can’t exactly sneak up on criminals in a helicopter.

Large, loud, and resource-intensive, traditional police helicopters are still the best eyes-in-the-sky, but that may change as law enforcement turn to drones more and more for airborne surveillance.

Drones however, especially larger drones with large battery packs or fuel-powered engines can stay aloft for hours or even days. Moreover, beyond a certain altitude, a drone is going to be effectively invisible and silent.

Finally, drones are cheap and, yes, you still need a highly trained pilot to operate a surveillance drone but they’re also not as inherently risky, e.g. being shot at or blinded by laser pointers, and loss of life is minimized if you crash.

Thus the question is, does UAV surveilling and searching constitute the same kind as with manned aircraft? Is it reasonable?

Things become murkier, however, when you factor in drones outfitted with infrared sensors and radar that can see through walls and ceilings. What then? If police no longer have to physically enter your home to see inside, is that reasonable? Will it require a warrant?

The Best Response Still isn’t Violence

What becomes apparent, once you disengage yourself from the what-ifs and could-happens, is that there’s no easy, unified response to the “drone problem.”

You could, for example, resort to violence. Shooting drones down isn’t unheard of, and indeed one small town in Colorado even considered putting a bounty on drones. But, it’s rarely a good idea to fire a gun into the air, and you could get in trouble – typically cities and municipalities have laws against illegally discharging firearms (even in Texas).

Obviously, if someone is so annoyed at drones that they take up arms, then the legal ramifications may not be much of a consideration for them. But the fact is, even a large octo-copter is going to present a tough, quick-moving target. So unless you’re a crack shot, or incredibly lucky, you’re more likely to waste ammunition and probably endanger others.

While the prospect of a sky full of Federal drones is a frightening thought, the fact is that at this point there isn’t a sky full of Federal drones, and shooting one down is not only a bad idea, but illegal.

Other Anti-Drone Techniques

Of course, there are other responses to drones that don’t involve taking up arms, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect or legal.

Signal Jamming

One anti-drone technique is to jam the radio frequency or GPS signal, though this is almost as bad an idea as shooting at them.

So-called microdrones (your typical 4, 6, 8-rotor variety) are controlled via a basic radio control unit, just like you’d use to control a model airplane. They’re also equipped with GPS radios that allow them to navigate autonomously, if needed.

It is quite possible to buy or build a radio frequency jammer. You can scan the the frequencies to determine which one the drone is employing and jam it, or you could flood the entire RF spectrum.

It’s decidedly illegal to do something like this in the United States (other countries have similar laws as well) as you could interfere with legitimate services such as police radio, 9-1-1, cell phone communications, Wi-Fi, and more.

The use of “cell jammers” or similar devices designed to intentionally block, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications (signal blockers, GPS jammers, or text stoppers, etc.) is a violation of federal law.

If you’re caught RF jamming, you could face hefty fines and jail time. Bottom line: don’t do it.

Geo Fencing

Another solution is geo fencing, which amounts to preventing drones from overflowing geographic locations by blocking the GPS coordinates in its firmware.

Many drone makers already do this, preventing you from flying UAVs around airports and other sensitive areas. One notable Chinese drone manufacturer even recently implemented a mandatory firmware update, preventing its drones from flying within a 15.5-mile radius around Washington DC.

GEO fencing is also available to regular folks as well though. One service called NoFlyZone.org aims to provide this service. With NoFlyZone.org, you simply enter your address into their database, verify your address and GPS coordinates, and then they “coordinate with participating drone manufacturers” to prevent drones from overflying your property.

We’re skeptical, however, that this is really a longterm, viable solution. After all, it might keep a few casual hobbyists from peering in your backyard with drones from “participating manufacturers,” but it’s not going to stop the government or police.

And really, anyone who is into UAVs knows that geo fencing isn’t a cureall. If you fly a drone via first person view or line of sight, you can fly a drone anywhere. Remember, an unmanned aerial vehicle is little more than a glorified model airplane or helicopter, they don’t have to be outfitted with GPS to operate.

Indeed, some researchers are developing fully autonomous robot drones that can fly without GPS, so in that case, geo fencing is all but useless.

Plain Old Legislation

For now, perhaps the best response to the rising drone issue is in the hands of lawmakers, which probably doesn’t strike confidence into the hearts of many. Indeed, Amazon has recently expressed their impatience for slow manner in which the FAA has moved to address drones in the commercial space.

Meanwhile, states are enacting their own laws or forming committees to address real or potential UAV problems. In 2014 alone, “35 states considered UAS or UAV … bills and resolutions; 10 states enacted new laws.”

In some cases, laws are being passed to protect hunters from harassment, such as in Michigan. In Nevada however, proposed legislation would criminalize taking “a clandestine photo of a person in a private setting,” prompting some to ask if that’s going too far.

The picture we get then is evolving and ever-changing; again, it’s a moving target. There’s no all-in-one-and-one-for-all solution. It’s fair to say, drone manufacturers, lawmakers, and UAV lobbyists still have the time and opportunity to get things right. Let’s hope they do.

Got a comment you’d like to add or a question you want to ask? We anticipate you have a lot to say about drones and privacy issues, so we encourage you to leave your feedback in our discussion forum.

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and dyed-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.