Stop worrying, learn to love drones *

Writing for the Brookings Institution, drone policy expert Gregory McNeal has published a report urging Congress and state legislatures not to overreact when it comes to privacy concerns over drones. McNeal argues, and we agree, that a “technology-centric” approach to legislating privacy protections is misguided, and ends up missing the point:

[Various] legislative efforts have been aimed at restricting the government’s use of drone technology, while largely allowing the government to conduct identical surveillance when not using drone technology. This absurd anachronism is intentional, as privacy advocates have explicitly chosen to capitalize on the public interest and attention associated with the demonization of drone technology as a way to achieve legislative victories. These advocates are admittedly not focused on more sensible legislation that addresses harms irrespective of the technology used.

He notes that current unmanned systems are actually not as effective at surveillance as manned aircraft (which consistent with a point that we have previously made, here). He also points out that banning law enforcement from using drones, in the absence of a warrant, leads to absurd results. For example, using drones to monitor the Boston Marathon – a public event – might benefit public safety. But the law doesn’t allow the Boston PD to do so unless it obtains a warrant by demonstrating probable cause in an application:

That application would need to define with particularity the place to be searched or the persons to be surveilled. All of this would be required to observe people gathered in a public place, merely because the observation was taking place from a drone, rather than from an officer on a rooftop or in a helicopter. In a circumstance like a marathon, this probable cause showing will be difficult for the police to satisfy. After all, if the police knew who in the crowd was a potential bomber, they would arrest those individuals.

Even more absurd is that

in the states where drones have been banned (unless accompanied by a warrant), the police have not been prohibited from using any other type of surveillance equipment—just drones. This technology-centric approach has done little to protect privacy, but will certainly harm public safety, depriving law enforcement of a tool that they could use to protect people.

After reviewing a series of court opinions governing the current state of aerial surveillance, McNeal goes on to provide some recommendations for how legislatures should think about their approaches to drone surveillance regulations. Read the whole thing.

*In what seems like a reference to “Dr. Strangelove,” arstechnica distills the message to “stop worrying, learn to love drones.”

Are Drones Are Invading Our Privacy?

Business Insider has a well-written article on the issue of whether we should be concerned about drones invading our privacy, and whether new laws are needed to address those concerns. “Private citizens,” the article notes, “have grown increasingly concerned that these technologies could invade their privacy.”

Attorney Brendan Schulman – who has become the go-to guy for comments on sUAS issues – provides a healthy dose of context to these concerns:

As Schulman points out, most states already have laws to address the type of invasions that concern people. For example, peeping tom laws criminalize peering into someone’s windows. And private property laws prevent someone from building a treehouse over their neighbor’s yard. You likely can’t fly a drone there for the same reason, Schulman says.

“If I’m taking pictures through a window,” he said, “and I use a broom stick instead of a drone, it’s the invasive behavior that concerns lawmakers — not what you use.”

The article notes that the camera technology for most civilian drones is not very useful for surveillance. The writer points to this wide-angle city-scape of Seattle, taken by a drone photographer, which illustrates the point that it’s actually very difficult to photograph any sort of details unless the drone gets very close to the subject.


Our view is that privacy concerns are just another example of the sort of moral panic that tends to follow in the wake of our permanent, 24/7 news cycle, where perceptions of an issue and reality tend to get out of alignment. We will be observing developments, but contrary to the conventional wisdom in the media, it is neither the most interesting, nor the most important, issue relating to drone law and regulations.