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Government Surveillance, Privacy & Data

Help is Here: How Not to Be a Jerk with Your Drone


When it comes to drones, the sky’s the limit. We are already hearing about the many revolutionary ways these tiny robot copters could soon make our lives safer, more efficient, and more fun. First responders may soon use drones to go where humans physically can’t go during search and rescue missions, toxic spills, or wild fires. Pizzas and Amazon packages may be delivered faster than ever before. And forget NASCAR – the latest high-speed racing craze may soon move from the racetrack to the air. It’s no wonder Business Insider predicts drone revenues will top $12 billion in the next five years, after being just over $8 billion last year. With such skyrocketing growth, seeing a drone may eventually become as common as seeing a UPS truck or fire engine.

The difference, of course, is that drones can be small, nearly silent, equipped with tiny but powerful cameras, and capable of going just about anywhere. As Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis once famously recognized as more and more people became capable of instantaneous photography, new technology can bring tremendous new privacy harms. The unique privacy risks that could result from the proliferation of drones are obvious, and although many people are excited about this new technology, many are also understandably concerned that we could soon be faced with a world of constant, inescapable surveillance in the physical world – in addition to the constant surveillance and tracking that we already experience online. Some have even resorted to desperate measures to protect their personal space and privacy from the mysterious robots flying over their property.

The unique privacy risks that could result from the proliferation of drones are obvious.

That’s why, in 2015, President Obama established a multi-stakeholder engagement process to ensure that privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties concerns are considered and addressed as drones are integrated into the airspace. In May 2016, the process culminated in a final consensus document supported by a diverse group of privacy advocates, trade associations, media organizations, and companies. These groups may have had different priorities throughout the process, but we were able to reach an agreement because we’re excited about the promise of drone technology, yet we also know that its success hinges on winning the public’s trust.

The gist of the consensus document is simple: don’t be a jerk with your drone. In fact, several of the document’s suggestions are easy, commonsense ways for drone operators to ensure that they use their devices in an ethical, safe way that is respectful of fellow members of society. For example, the best practices recommend completely avoiding areas where people expect privacy – no looking in windows. Further, don’t unnecessarily invade your neighbor’s personal space with your drone – if you can avoid hovering ominously over their property, you should do so. Even if an individual is in a public space, don’t subject them to constant, unrelenting surveillance with your drone without permission; don’t gather personal data for no reason, and delete any personal data you do gather as soon as practical. Moreover, particularly sensitive data should be guarded with adequate security mechanisms, and if someone asks you to delete personal data that you have gathered about them, you should probably do so unless you have a good reason not to.

The gist of the consensus document is simple: don’t be a jerk with your drone.

These guidelines are aimed at a wide audience. Whether you’re a major player like Amazon, a small business owner like a realtor or wedding photographer, or an individual user, they give you the simple guidance you need to operate a drone. In addition, non-hobbyist drone operators should examine the new rules for operating a commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds that were released by the Federal Aviation Administration this week, as well as the recommended privacy guidelines that the FAA will provide to all drone users as part of its privacy education campaign.

Ultimately, acting responsibly from the start will help avoid catastrophic abuses and mistakes, which lead to overregulation. For a nascent technology, strict, impractical regulation can be a death sentence – stymying growth of an industry barely given the chance to take off. More importantly, abuses also lead to a society where, instead of being a force for good, drones become a tool for peeping Toms and mass surveillance. We hope drone operators read and consider the NTIA best practices carefully, and eventually weave them into their everyday routines as more people than ever before take to the skies.