Inexpensive Drone Technology Threatens Privacy

I was looking at the Spring/Summer issue of Mac|Life this week, and was a little blown away at the announcement that private drones would soon be available to “surveil you’re enemies from above.”   If you ever tried an old remote-control helicopter, you know that they are shaky and unreliable, and often crash.  This new flying machine is a quadricopter (four rotors), and comes equipped with two video cameras.  You control the drone with your iphone, and it streams the video back to your screen.  Check out this YouTube clip for an idea of how it works:

You have to wonder about the writers at Mac|Life who suggested that this invention is the “best app ever”.  Mac|Life’s adoring “review” of this product has no thoughtful discussion of its potential for abuse.  It is one thing to understand theoretically that the C.I.A. can read a license plate off of your car, or to know that Google Earth has a grainy photo of your backyard online.  But it is another thing entirely for the geeky neighbor kid to be flying this around outside your second story window.  It is one thing to be “watched” from above, and another thing to be watched from all sides.

I remember in law school learning about the legal principle that states that a property owner owns his or her parcel all the way from the center of the earth up to the heavens.  I looked this principle up again today, and the notion dates back to William Blackstone, who in 1766 wrote  it in Latin: “Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad caelum et ad inferos.”  So is it trespassing to fly this over your neighbors house and spy on him?  As with most laws in Washington, the RCW code takes a while to catch up on new technology.  Example:  In July 21st, 2000, a perv named Richard Sorrells ran around Seattle Center with a mini-video recorder in his hand that he pointed up girls skirts.  He was arrested, but he beat the charges because he never actually touched the girls, and there was no law that prohibited such filming.    Well, it took about three years, but the slow-pokes in our state legislature finally figured out video cameras were now smaller than a Super 8 mm.  On May 12th, 2003 the legislature enacted RCW 9A.44.115 which made such filming a felony.  How long will it take for the legislature to prohibit someone from buzzing a drone through your yard while you are having a barbecue?

Would it be permissible for the police to fly a drone over your garden to look for marijuana plants growing?  It will be interesting to see how how this develops.   Basically, under Washington law, the police are allowed to fly over your house and look for marijuana gardens.  The State Supreme Court ruled in State v. Wilson (1999) that such a flight does not invade a persons privacy as long as the planes comply with the FAA rule that fixed-wing aircraft remain at an altitude of 500 feet.   Currently, the only marijuana-spotting drones in use by law enforcement in the U.S. are in Northern California.  There, the Forest Service uses drones to look for large marijuana gardens on public lands.  Under law, an individual has a lesser expectation of privacy while on public land, than at his home.  In Europe however, the police have begun to use drones to fly-over and observe activities on private property.   The police in the U.K. used a drone to catch a car thief, before being told such use was not allowed without a permit by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority.  See story.  In the Netherlands, the police have begun using drones to look for marijuana grows.  See video:

Is it just me or is this drone technology pretty scary? Where are we going to be in 5 or 10 years on this issue? What do you think?

3 Responses to “Inexpensive Drone Technology Threatens Privacy”

  • Frank:

    If anyone ‘wants’ you they will find you. No hiding anywhere. Best privite eye tool I’ve seen.

  • Traffic Cameras are showing up everywhere. You can’t avoid them. PhotoStopper Spray or a Super Protector License cover is the only real solutions to protect yourself.

  • Harris Hollis:

    I’m behind you every step of the way. You have a legal entitlement to your own view, and you must never let other people tell you anything different. Well done!

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking:
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