Legal And Privacy Issues With Drone Monitoring

Drones have become so popular in recent years that pretty much anyone can get their hands on one and fly it. This is great for all the hobbyists, videographers, survey teams, and other operators ready to use these UAVs to their advantage.

The problem is that not everyone is happy with drones. They are fine out in the field, carrying out important work away from built-up areas. Attitudes change when they come close to people and property, especially when those drones have cameras onboard.

There are calls for tighter laws on the privacy issues surrounding the use of drones for monitoring. However, this is not a straight forward task.

America Witnessed A Sharp Increase In Drone Use

Recent statistics on registered drones in the US show approximately 459,400 registered drones flown by hobbyists and nearly 8,400 for non-hobbyists. These are the drones currently registered on the Federal Aviation Administration’s online database.

There is a dramatic increase in the 325,000 that was in the database in February. There is no certainty on how much this figure will increase by the end of the year.

The simple fact is that everyone loves these drones and wants the chance to fly them wherever, whenever and however they want. Many users are responsible and fly with the correct licensing, under the right guidelines. Others are reckless. This inconsistency leads to concerns over privacy issues and drone monitoring.

There are big privacy issues with drones flying over private property, taking pictures of people in public areas and sharing information.

[Source: ABC News (Australia)]

Drones are a great tool in the right hands, but a nuisance in the wrong hands. Drones have the capability to fly close to private property with their camera feeds and share images and information without our consent. We are naturally suspicious when this device flies overhead and wonder what they are up to – and what they can see.

A drone may tell advertisers and other companies where you were and what you were doing, allowing them to tailor their products and services. This could all happen without the knowledge of those involved.

Drones should make life easier, offering services in specific industries and conveniences. The range of drone operator roles continues to expand significantly as new tech and opportunities arise. The best solutions are out in the country.

Drones survey landscapes and areas of agriculture to provide data on new solutions and expansions. The camera imaging offers new data and data sharing between project managers for a more efficient process. Still, drones have their worth in urban areas too. The survey damage and environmental properties of high rise buildings and have potential in delivery services.

The problem here is that if we want to use drones to make life easier, we need these machines buzzing around and using their cameras above our heads. Any drone runs the risk of passing over people and private property, even out in the most rural areas. It isn’t so bad when there is that direct stream of data from the subject to the controller. The issue comes with others that may gain access to that data and use it for their profit.

These legal issues of data collection and privacy have crept into law and bills in recent months.

The problems above have not gone ignored. There are many politicians and groups trying to crack down on drone use, limit data sharing and increase peace of mind for residents. The nation has witnessed some new data laws to protect citizens. For example, six states created laws restricting the way that government agencies and companies store their data.

Four states also looked into limiting the access of colleges to student social media profiles to prevent discrimination. When it comes to the laws about drone monitoring and use, twelve states have increased their legislation.

  1. Oregon and Vermont now restrict law enforcement or government use of drones
  2. Kansas recently made it illegal to stalk other people with a drone.
  3. Arizona, Louisiana and Utah law now states that drone operators cannot fly their drones near police or firefighter activity.
  4. Oklahoma and Tennessee officials created legislation that operators can’t fly drones near specific buildings, such as power plants

This has all culminated with the introduction of the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act.

The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act was recently introduced to the House via Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. The aim here is to increase privacy protections and data reduction requirements with stricter laws.

There is a clear focus on the information collected, disclosure provisions for data collection and new approaches to warrant requirements for law enforcement operations.

The main aim of the bill is as follows: “to amend the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012” with the purpose of providing “guidance and limitations regarding the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the United States airspace.” It also talks about the risk that technology will “enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections.”

The National Telecommunications And Information Administration Guidelines


In addition to this bill, there is a series of guidelines available that detail some of the best practices for operators when “respecting the privacy of others during a drone flight.” The points and clauses provide detail and a clear focus on public protection.

The main points are as follows:

  • “Inform Others of Your Use of unmanned aircraft system (UAS).”
  • “Show Care When Operating UAS or Collecting and Storing Covered Data.”
  • “Limit the Use and Sharing of Covered Data.”
  • “Secure Covered Data.”
  • “Monitor and Comply with Evolving Federal, State, and Local UAS Laws.”

It is important to note that this is all voluntary, with no legality or potential ramifications behind it at all. Responsible operators can choose to work within these guidelines or choose to work as they see fit.

It is also interesting to note that this all of this thought and detail comes from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, rather than the FAA. The FAA is the key figure in guidance and regulation for drone flight, yet it fell to this separate organization to step in and provide this basic coverage.

In fact, the FAA has been rather slow to react to calls for better guidelines and legislation on drone regulations and laws over recent years. Hence the need to modernize the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

The Other Issue With The FAA Is That Of Exemptions And Waivers

There are many ways to get around the FAA and these guidelines on flights. The first consideration here is the §333 Exemption. These §333 Exemptions are usually valid for two years from the date issued. This means that those applying for a specific project in spring 2017 will enjoy the same privileges in winter 2018.

There is always the chance that operators will abuse this power. Then there are the waiver provisions of Part 107 of the FAA guidelines.

Any operator can apply for an exemption for their project, with no apparent limitation on what they can ask to remove. This means that operators can ask to work from a moving vehicle, operate a night, work beyond the usual visual line-of-sight requirement waived, change the speed, height and much more.

The FAA appears to be pretty open to these suggestions, with many waivers granted, and there is a sense of a lack of firm regulation. This is a concern for all those that want to see the laws tightened.

There is a clear sense that the FAA doesn’t necessarily view drones as the dangerous, influential aircraft that they are. The evidence for this also comes from attitudes to drone flight near manned aircraft.

The FAA recently released data on 1,274 likely drone sightings from airport settings between February and September last year. Still, the FAA focuses on the lack of collisions of the 670,000 drones registered in the country, rather than the risk from that 1,274.

Other countries are perhaps more cautious, and rightly so. Drone sightings at London’s Gatwick airport saw activity suspended and flights diverted, causing massive disruption in only a few minutes of drone activity.

The drone monitoring legal issue continues with concerns over the First Amendment and other freedoms.

There is one group that has always been able to get away with a little more than some others when it comes to drone flight, image generation and data collection. That is the media.

The FAA and other bodies are keen to note the First Amendment rights of drone operators, provided that they fly and film responsibly. This is even the case with those National Telecommunications and Information Administration guidelines.

They state that newsgathering is “strongly protected by United States law, including the First Amendment to the Constitution” due to the public’s reliance on “an independent press to gather and report the news and ensure an informed public.” This is why they claim that these Best Practices do not apply to news reporting organizations.

The problem here is that strict regulations on drone use, drone monitoring, and other privacy issues could place this at risk. Ill-thought out guidelines without adequate protections could see news reporters limited in their actions. At the same time, we could see a focus on government and commercial operators where they make a profit and share data on a wider scale. In fact, some states are currently considering laws to prevent the use of a drone by journalists on big industrial farms.

We have to find the balance between a drone that respects the privacy and a drone that offers convenience.

We want to be able to embrace drones as great tools for social and technological progression. We hit this brick wall where the two things we want the most can’t co-exist. We want a drone that can deliver packages door to door for fast service. But, we don’t want drones over our private property.

We want the best cameras on our drones for detailed imaging and photography of urban areas and suburban developments. But, we don’t want them taking pictures of people and personal property. We want drones that can survey vast areas of land for developments, mining, and infrastructure. But, we insist that the drone must stay within the eye line of users for safety reasons.

Is There A Clear Solution Here?

Issues of Drone Monitoring

It is no wonder that it is so difficult to create the right regulations on the issues of drone monitoring and privacy laws. This is especially true when it is already so difficult to understand the rules and regulations of basic commercial flight. There are so many waivers and exemptions that the system becomes full of gray areas and inconsistencies.

For now, it seems as though this is the most likely approach to these legal issues in the short term. There will be uproar if we ban everyone from flying at certain distances, in certain areas or with certain equipment. It could limit the potential of services and restrict key operators – such as those newscasters that are already exempt from those guidelines. After all, these legal issues become more extreme when we raise the problem of the First Amendment.

Exemptions and waivers are the easy option and appear everywhere with these drone laws and privacy issues. Even the proposed Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency bill has exemptions in place. For example, a law enforcement entity would be exempt if it:

1) “reasonably believes there is an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury.”

2) “reasonably believes there is a high risk of an imminent terrorist attack…and the Secretary of Homeland Security has determined that credible intelligence indicates there is such a risk”.

Either way, drone monitoring needs laws sooner rather than later.

In the end, however much the FAA want to resist the need to create these laws, there is no doubt that drone use in the skies of urban American can only increase. These drones will become important tools in all kinds of industries.

We may have to get used to them flying around above our homes, and as we carry out our business in the street. We may get used to their presence, but it will be a long time until we accept the camera and the idea of data sharing. This is the fundamental issue here. Where is that data going and how are thirds parties using it? Rule out the third parties and data sharing, and there is less of an issue.

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