At Wired, Stanford’s Ryan Calo has an opinion column about privacy and the use of aerial drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, “UAVs”) to conduct surveillance in the United States. Congress recently approved the FAA reauthorization bill, which includes a provision to integrate the use of aerial surveillance by drones in the United States by Sept. 30, 2015, rather than keeping the drones for their original purpose flying in combat missions.
The ACLU has released a report on this technology, “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft” (pdf). The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation to learn more about the use of drones in the United States. And the Center for Democracy and Technology has looked into the privacy issues that can arise from commercial and domestic law enforcement use of drones.
Just in case you haven’t seen the memo: Drones are coming to a city near you. They are arriving on these shores by the hundreds after serving in war zones overseas, and plenty of new models are on order to meet a burgeoning domestic demand. […]
The FAA’s primary concern is safety; carelessly deployed drones might literally crash your dinner party or collide with other aircraft in the already crowded skies. But civil-liberty groups are worried about what they see as a greater danger: the specter of massive surveillance. […]
It is easy to see why these and other groups are concerned: It turns out that there is very little in American privacy law that would prohibit drone surveillance within our borders.
Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. Google, with Maps and especially Street View, has taken full advantage of this, for example.
There are also practical barriers to aerial surveillance. Few law enforcement agencies can afford planes. Those with helicopters use them sparingly. The widespread availability of drones reduces or removes these barriers, dramatically altering law enforcement’s calculus for when aerial surveillance might be appropriate.
Read the full opinion column for a discussion of a recent case, United States v. Jones, concerning global positioning satellite (GPS) technology and how its use by law enforcement can affect individual privacy rights.