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Privacy vs. UAS

As the UAS industry evolves, so does the topic of privacy. Consider this example when taking a stance on UAS-related privacy issues.
By Patrick C. Miller | April 09, 2015

Let’s say that you’re an avid sunbather who doesn’t want anyone watching you while you’re out on your deck catching some rays. You put up a 10-foot fence around your property. You also plant some strategically placed trees and shrubs to obscure the view.

Despite your best efforts, someone with a 12-foot ladder and a strong telephoto lens finds just the right angle to shoot a video of you that gets posted on the Internet. In your mind, you did all you could to create a reasonable expectation of privacy, but a determined individual using a low-tech approach succeeded in breaching the barriers you erected.

Does the technology used to invade your privacy matter more than the fact that it was invaded? Isn’t your privacy invaded regardless of whether the video camera was attached to an unmanned aerial vehicle or held by someone standing on a ladder?

That’s the question that comes to mind when I hear about states passing privacy laws specifically aimed at UAS and read about the Electronic Privacy Information Center filing a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because it hasn’t created privacy regulations.

I understand that the public concerns about privacy when it comes to unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Several years ago, I witnessed a demonstration put on by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They showed a live video streamed from one of their Predators as it flew along the Interstate. None of the people cruising down the highway had a clue that they were being observed from above by a large group of people in a conference room watching video provided by a federal government drone.

I had an ambivalent reaction to the demonstration. Part of me was amazed at that level of detail the UAS and it sensors revealed. I could immediately see its value in detecting people illegally crossing the border. I fully understood why CBP considered UAS a valuable tool in its daily operations.

But, on the other hand, I felt like a voyeur while watching people who didn’t know they were being watched, especially when we had no real reason to observe them. And while we didn’t see anyone doing anything they shouldn’t be doing, it still made me uneasy.  

The CBP officers conducting the demonstration exuded professionalism, and I have no doubt they had far more important things to do than fly a Predator up and down the Interstate in hopes of randomly spotting a bad guy or seeing something interesting to gossip about over a beer after work.

While it was easy to blame the technology for its ability to spy on drivers without their knowledge, a cop with a good pair of binoculars in an unmarked car parked in a concealed location could accomplish the same thing. 

There are already laws on the books dealing with the invasion of privacy. And the courts have addressed issues related to law enforcement using aircraft to gather evidence.

When it comes to privacy, UAS technology isn’t the problem. It’s how people decide to use it that creates the problem.