Drones and Illegal Surveillance

Small, incredibly agile, and increasingly more affordable, drones now come in tiny sizes, perfect for taking photos and videos as well as larger drones capable of carrying high-powered cameras with optical zoom lens made for spying and illegal surveillance.

In October, Civil Aviation Safety Authority relaxed rules about “remotely piloted aircraft” making it easier to fly a drone in Australia. What is notably absent are any restrictions about flying a drone over private property, which is a cause for concern since there is little recourse for Australians that have been filmed without consent on their own property.

While in the United States, most states do not have laws regarding drone surveillance. Only seven states explicitly outlaw peeping Tom drones and nearly half of states allow the use of drones for law enforcement surveillance, but do have laws limiting its use.

But the question still remains …

What right does an individual have to his or her privacy?

A voluntary code of conduct for drone use, which many from humanitarian communities have adopted, lays out guidelines for drone pilots that wish to preserve individuals’ privacy while gathering information. There is no binding law or statute that applies to private or commercial use of drones in most countries, but legal scholars argue that there should be, because airspace lies in a grey area that is neither entirely public nor entirely private.

Courts all over the world will be determining and interpreting privacy laws in regards to drone use. While courts can determine what is legal and what is not, they cannot legislate what is legal but “ill-advised.” Media companies, for one, have pushed back against any guidelines that might restrict drone surveillance use. “You don’t need a person’s permission to photograph them when they are out in public,” says Mickey Osterricher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association. “We should not be creating new laws based solely on the fact that it involves a new technology.”

Of course, an increase of cameras in public spaces is not only due to the use of drones. From CCTV cameras to wearable cameras on law enforcement officers to the ubiquitous use of mobile phone cameras, advances in technology are irrevocably changing the conversation about privacy.

You can’t put the cat back in the bag.

It is irrefutable that the number of drones in the sky is going to skyrocket in the next few years and with advances in drone technology, they will likely only get smaller and cheaper – a perfect storm for illegal drone surveillance.

Some countries have decided to take an extreme stance on drones and privacy concerns. Sweden recently passed legislation banning all cameras on drones deeming it illegal surveillance. There are no exemptions for anyone including journalists.

Illegal drone surveillance can be broken down into a few main types, three of which are covered below.

  • Footage shot from movie and television sets.

Movie sets were once considered off-limits to media and paparazzi, but recently people have been using drones to spy on such famous movies and television shows like Star Wars and Game of Thrones to take clandestine behind-the-scenes images of the cast and sets. Actors in Star Wars: The Force Awakens wore robes over their clothes to hide their faces and costumes from prying drones. Disney has gone so far as to try to purchase anti-drone technology and posted hundreds of guards during the filming of the 8th Star Wars movie to combat drones.

  • “Dronerazzi” besieging celebrities and their children.

Kanye West asked, “Is your daughter stalked by drones? Are there drones flying where she’s trying to learn how to swim at age one?” after a paparazzo drone was used to spy on his family in their backyard.

California, home to Hollywood and celebrity elite, has taken a strict stance on drones by passing a new law that will make it illegal for paparazzi to use drones to take photos of celebrities. This comes on the heels of complaints by celebrities like Kristen Bell, Dax Shepard, and Halle Berry.

  • Peeping Drones.

A man in the state of Kentucky was arrested after shooting down a drone that was hovering above his sunbathing under-age daughter. He said:

“You know, when you’re in your own property, within a six-foot privacy fence, you have the expectation of privacy. We don’t know if he was looking at the girls. We don’t know if he was looking for something to steal. To me, it was the same as trespassing.”

He’s not the only one that’s run into trouble with drones hovering over private property. A New Jersey man was arrested after shooting down a neighbour’s drone and a California man lost a small claims court case after shooting down a drone hovering over his property.

  • Military Surveillance

Civil drones now vastly outnumber military drones. While it is illegal in most countries for civilians to fly drones over military bases, illegal surveillance of military installations is likely to become a rising issue as this division grows and more and more civilians own and have access to drones. When a civilian drone is found on or hovering above a military base, it can be virtually impossible to locate the drone pilot. Without the pilot, there is no avenue for recourse regardless of whether the pilot is a careless local or a foreign agent with terroristic objectives, which could have far-reaching national security implications.

DroneShield provides comprehensive drone detection solutions for everyone and countermeasures for federal militaries and agencies suite of solutions (where legal) for situations where drones create threats to safety, security, or privacy.  

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