Around 7:45 a.m. on June 22, a Seattle woman spotted an unusual apparatus hovering outside the window of her 26th floor apartment while getting dressed.
“It was freaky,” Lisa Pleiss told KIRO TV. “You don’t expect to be walking around indecent in your apartment and have this thing out there potentially recording you.”
She immediately called the concierge of her building, who went outside to see two men operating an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), more commonly known as a drone. They also had a tripod and video camera with them.
Twenty minutes later, the concierge “just wanted to make sure the Seattle Police were aware of the situation,” according to the official report.
Recently, police blotters across the country have told similar stories. On Sept. 8, Cleveland residents called the authorities after noticing a drone flying near their house. The same day, a woman in San Jose, California complained to police about a drone flying over her property, too. And just days earlier, New York City police arrested a man for allegedly flying a drone above the U.S. Open.
Private citizens have grown increasingly concerned that these technologies could invade their privacy.
“We already have laws to address if people are being spied upon,” prominent drone attorney Brendan Schulman tells Business Insider. “It doesn’t seem to me that the technology being used would make a difference.”
Schulman, a model aircraft enthusiast for over 20 years, recently represented a commercial drone operator who was fined by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In his opinion, almost every state already has laws that address spying — and almost no one flying drones uses them for that purpose anyway.
Two days after seeing the drone, Pleiss posted a “drone drama update” on her Facebook (found via The Washington Post). The machine’s owner had apparently contacted her and explained his company used it to photograph property for a new building. “He felt bad — assured me no topless pics exist,” she wrote.
Joe Vaughn, owner of Portland-based Skyris Imaging, an aerial photography, video, and GIS company, confirms he contacted Pleiss. In fact, he was one of the men outside her building that day.
“I called the Seattle Police department within 5 minutes of seeing an article on social media,” Vaughn tells Business Insider. “And then I Facebook messaged [Pleiss]. We spoke on the phone shortly after that.”
Vaughn says his operators never fly drones above private property. For that reason, they don’t do work for residential real estate companies either. “Chances are, you’re going to be flying over someone else’s home to get to another,” he explains.
Lastly, his operators never fly above 400 feet (per FAA regulations). The day Pleiss saw the drone, Vaughn remembers flying one of his devices, about 150 feet in the air, with a wide angle lens, to take a photo of the Seattle skyline for a client.
“If I were to point it at somebody’s window, I’d have to be within feet to see anything,” he explains.
While drones’ cameras do feed back to the operators, the low resolution, which only allows for navigation, distorts any specifics.
“Privacy has a lot to do with intent, and we weren’t intending to pry on anyone,” Vaughn says. “The equipment didn’t even have the ability to pry on anyone … I can understand how it would be startling though.”
The photo below came from Skyris Imaging’s flight that day.
As Schulman points out, most states already have laws to address the type of invasions that concern people. For example, peeping tom laws criminalise peering into someone’s windows. And private property laws prevent someone from building a treehouse over their neighbour’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 Broomstick [a type of unmanned aircraft] instead a camera, it’s the invasive behaviour that concerns lawmakers — not what you use.”
Drones’ size, price, and noisiness also make them faulty surveillance devices. If people want to spy, they’d achieve better results installing a hidden camera in a tree or on a windowsill.
The FAA currently regulates flying in public airspace. The federal organisation lists three specific types of devices: civil UAS, public UAS, and model aircraft. Flying for any purposes other than a hobby requires FAA approval. And no devices can fly above 400 feet.
The FAA, however, doesn’t handle privacy. The president is expected to designate the National Telecommunications and Information Administration as the agency responsible for issues related to drone privacy, but he hasn’t yet issued an official executive order to that effect, Schulman explains. Currently, 15 state have passed some kind of anti-drone legislation, according to Schulman — although most restrict law enforcement’s ability to use drones. In early 2013, Charlottesville, Virginia became the first city to pass an anti-drone resolution. And House Bill 912, also known as the Texas Privacy Act, makes using drones for surveillance a crime.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Schulman said. “It’s largely a political response to perceived privacy issues that are already dealt with by existing laws.” Recent leaks within the National Security agency have made people uncomfortable with their existing levels of privacy, he notes.
Recently, Schulman fought a fine brought by the FAA. The case could potentially limit the organisation’s ability to regulate commercial drones.
Pirker v. FAA
In 2011, a drone videographer named Raphael Pirker flew over the University of Virginia, with permission, to film a potential commercial for the institution, Schulman said. His device was a five-pound, remote-controlled, Styrofoam aeroplane.
Soon after, the FAA issued a $US10,000 fine to him for flying a commercial drone. The organisation took issue with how low to the ground Pirker flew.
“There’s never been a fine like this before,” Schulman says. “There’s just nothing in the laws that addresses model aircraft like that.”
As Pirker’s attorney, Schulman quickly moved to dismiss the penalty on the grounds that the FAA can’t regulate small unmanned aircraft. In 2014, a judge at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) agreed.
The FAA, however, immediately appealed. The case now sits before the full NTSB board.
“We kind of have to wait and see what happens,” Schulman says. “The situation is still unclear as to what the final decision will be.”
While regulating drones remains a grey area for the law, Schulman doesn’t think people should worry too much about protecting their privacy.
“There’s often a misperception about what these devices are used for,” Schulman explains. “They’re very useful in construction and agriculture.”
Skyris, the company that spooked Pleiss, uses drones for both purposes. The company shot the video below of a new lodge in Washington. You can’t identity a single person.
Not everyone agrees though. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the changes in surveillance “frightening” while speaking at Oklahoma City University’s law school in early September. She went on to say:
“There are drones flying over the air randomly that are recording everything that’s happening on what we consider our private property. That type of technology has to stimulate us to think about what is it that we cherish in privacy and how far we want to protect it and from whom.”
But even the American Civil Liberties Union has criticised overarching laws on drones. Most states have focused on restricting law enforcement’s use — such as Tennessee’s, which requires a warrant for drone surveillance. Some, however, like Idaho’s, completely ban the use of drones, even privately. That could violate the First Amendment.
“I think people have heard primarily about privacy and safety concerns,” the drone attorney, Schulman, says. “And they’re overlooking the vast benefits of this technology.”