Increased use of ‘personal drones’ needs urgent regulation

Guardian
05.09.2011
By Sara Mansoori

Reports of spy drones used by media corporations could constitute misuse of private information and harassment

The military use of “spy drones” is very well established. United States Air Force drones have now done more than a million “combat hours”. Drones have been used by the police in Britain for some time. It is now reported that they are being used for news gathering purposes by News Corporation in the United States.

News Corporation’s iPad publication, The Daily has reportedly used its drone to capture aerial footage of Alabama storms and flooding in South Dakota. Their hardware is a MicroDrone md4-1000, a micro aerial vehicle that can be fitted with various imagery or sensor payloads. It appears that such use may be contrary to the Federal Aviation Administration rules which currently govern the use of drones – as they cannnot be used for commercial purposes.

It was recently reported that a Linux powered flying spy drone had been developed which was able to crack WiFi passwords and access GSM networks by posing as a mobile phone mast. A drone with a camera on board – and a flight time of 30 minutes – can be purchased in the UK for less than £10,000.

The privacy implications of this are obvious. Drones could take photographs of activities on private land and, it has been suggested, inside houses. They are, as the Daily Mail has pointed out “a dream tool for the paparazzi”.

Under the current English law, the publication of information obtained by such drones would, potentially, constitute a misuse of private information. It would depend on whether the individual to whom the information related had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in relation to the activity in question. The fact that the activity could be recorded from the “public sky” would not be decisive. The use of drones to record the movements of an individual might also constitute harassment.

In his post, which is entitled Will drones save privacy law?”, Ryan Calo seeks to draw out some potential positive outcomes from the “drone” phenomenon. He suggests that the difficulty in obtaining public support for privacy law derives in part from an inability to visualise the processes behind modern privacy harm, “this lack of visceral cues, forms a significant part of the reason that privacy law lags so far behind advancements of technology”. However, he suggests that people may feel very different about drones:

“The introduction of government and private drones into our cities will feel very different to the public and perhaps to the courts. What data there is suggests that Americans are nervous around robots. They may associate drones in particular with violence and the theater of war. The proliferation of drones in our skies could lead to a new, Warren and Brandeis moment—all of our amorphous fears about new technology watching us suddenly reified and immediate.”

Full article

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