Commercial Drone Use Hastens Privacy Debate


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Amazon announced December 1, 2013 that package deliveries, via unmanned aerial drone, to homes and businesses, are in the future for Millenial shoppers. This would be a leap forward for the domestic use of drones. But, as is true in everything else in modern America, legal issues will closely follow - or maybe even precede this.

Issues such as government regulations, rights of way, liability - not to mention the omnipresent privacy concerns - must be addressed. Professor Gregory S. McNeal, a Pepperdine University law professor, discussed these issues during a teleforum hosted by the Federalist Society on December 4. The Federalist Society is an organization of libertarian and conservative lawyers headquartered in Washington D.C.

McNeal said that civil libertarians are in some cases hitting the panic button about privacy issues. The drone is a catalyst for existing angst about privacy. He noted privacy infringing activities can be conducted already by low flying aircraft, helicopters etc. But Amazon's Bezos shifted the debate to commercial applications.

Commercial applications are plentiful too. He said that a rancher can use a drone, directed by an iPad, to check fencelines. Oil pipeline inspections could be another application.

"The list goes on and on," said McNeal. "There are tons of companies in Silicon Valley that have already developed this technology. A company called Skycatch has developed autonomous pick-up and delivery."

McNeal also said that the BBC has a drone journalism unit. He predicted that the BBC will eventually attach drones to news vans for aerial views of news scenes. There is also a company that wants to use drones for police and fire applications. This would cut down on false alarms and false police calls.

"It is a start-up industry where the barriers to entry are really low," claims McNeal.

Regarding privacy issues, McNeal does not think it is a real concern for the public. He said that the privacy advocates often use exaggerated arguments about accidents involving drones or equating delivery drones with predators in Afghanistan.

"It is largely a snarky, Twitterverse public concern," McNeal said. He does not take it seriously.

During the FAA commentary period, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), arguably the largest privacy advocate organization in America, submitted a list of recommendations to the FAA. Among their demands were listing drone operators in an easily accessible database, having drone operators disclose the limits of their operational license and surveillance capabilities and establishing a process of independent auditing for drone operators.

EPIC also asked the FAA to have "the roles of NASA and the Department of Defense" clarified. The organization also wants to mandate compliance with "Fair Information Practices" for those who use drones.

EPIC also wants penalties for violations. Such sanctions would include fines and license revocation.

McNeal thinks that much of this is unnecessary. He cites the fact that some people want safeguards of privacy of their airspace for drones flying overhead. They also want rules about collection and storage of drone surveillance data. But rules and laws about this will in and of themselves cause problems says McNeal.

"If you take a picture out of airplane, on approach, are you violating someone's privacy rights?" asks McNeal.

He mentioned Senator Rand Paul's (R-Ky) rhetorical question, during his filibuster, about wanting to know if Attorney General Eric Holder was looking at his backyard from a drone. But McNeal thinks this is specious.

"Is he similarly concerned with the privacy of his front door as police drive by with cameras on their cars?" wondered McNeal.

Some think that there are inherent problems with drone use other than privacy. They want certain rules with drone operation. One is requiring each drone to have a pilot in densely populated areas. This would permit drones avoiding other objects an ability that pilotless drones would not do as well.

But for the most part the biggest objections comes from privacy advocates who just do not like drones. They see it as just another vehicle for government intrusion.

But whether McNeal's minimization of privacy concerns is valid or whether EPIC it's paranoid is a question that the Boomers, Millenials and the generations to follow will have to debate during the next few decades. After all, the Supreme Court is still ruling on wiretap and pen register issues and these technologies are almost a century old.

But Amazon's - and others - commercialization of drone use will speed up this debate.

--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet

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