New Report Warns That Drones Could Be Used for Stalking, Voyeurism

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 1 2013 5:25 PM

New Report Warns That Drones Could Be Used for Stalking, Voyeurism

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A new report warns small drones could be used for stalking, eavesdropping, and voyeurism

Photo by DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images

The sight of a drone in flight is likely to become a regular occurrence in the United States within the next few years. But the rise of unmanned technology could lead to new crimes like “drone stalking” and “drone trespassing,” lawmakers are being told.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

A Congressional Research Service report published Wednesday, Integration of Drones Into Domestic Airspace: Selected Legal Issues, sets out the many contentious areas around unmanned aircraft. It cautions that in the future, as drones become more easily available to private citizens, we may see the technology used to commit various offences. This could mean neighbors using drones to infiltrate one another’s gardens as a means of harassment, or a voyeur using one strapped with a camera and microphone to photograph women and listen in on people’s conversations.

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“Traditional crimes such as stalking, harassment, voyeurism, and wiretapping may all be committed through the operation of a drone,” the report says. “As drones are further introduced into the national airspace, courts will have to work this new form of technology into their jurisprudence, and legislatures might amend these various statutes to expressly include crimes committed with a drone.”

Of particular note is a section in the report titled “Right To Protect Property From Trespassing Drones.” It outlines that in certain instances, under a section of tort law, “a landowner would not be liable to the owner of a drone for damage necessarily or accidentally resulting from removing it from his property.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can “use force”—like shooting the thing down—if someone flies an unmanned aircraft onto your property. But it does mean you could remove a drone from your property without resorting to force, and if it were “accidentally” damaged in that process, you might not be in trouble. Though, of course, it might be difficult to establish accidental or intentional damage in a court, and it could also be difficult to determine whether the drone had in fact been trespassing in the first place.

These issues may seem hypothetical now—but they are likely to come to the fore relatively soon. Last year, Congress tasked the FAA with safely integrating drones into the national airspace system by September 2015. Border security agencies are already using military-style drones like the Predator to conduct surveillance of border areas, and some law enforcement departments have used them, too—in one case, even to help arrest a farmer in North Dakota. Federal, state, and local agencies must obtain authorization from the FAA to fly large Predator-style drones, which can be used in designated airspace zones only. But regulations around small model-plane-size aircraft are more relaxed, and as they become more popular and affordable, legal conflicts seem inevitable.

Drones have prompted widespread privacy concerns, with one New York-based artist even recently developing a “drone-proof hoodie” to evade flying eyes in the sky. There are currently a number of bills being proposed by Congressmen looking to bring in provisions that will address drone surveillance. In December, for instance, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, which includes provisions that would require the FAA to create a public website where it will list all locations of drone flights.* Markey also called on the agency "to provide guidance and limitations" on drones in the United States.

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss the chances of Markey’s bill ever getting voted into law. But with warnings about a future of “drone stalking,” he might be about to see a boom in support.

Update, Feb. 1: This blog post was updated to insert the dropped word "flights."

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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