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Domestic Drone Use Takes Off But Privacy Protections Remain Grounded

September 11, 2015
Three years ago Congress enacted the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). The legislation called for the integration of drones into the national air space by September 2015, and opened the door to the establishment of drone test sites throughout the country. Despite the serious privacy concerns raised by the collection, retention, and dissemination of information by drones, few privacy protections exist at the federal level. Indeed, the substantive legal privacy framework governing drones remains woefully incomplete and lags far behind the ambitious integration goals announced in the FMRA.

by Jeremy Carp, L’17

Government Operated Drones

The Fourth Amendment provides some privacy protections in the case of government operated drones. In order for the Fourth Amendment to provide protection, the government’s collection of information must constitute a “search.” Under current law, a “search” only occurs if the person being observed has a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The Supreme Court, however, has never taken a position on whether drone observation constitutes a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. In cases involving surveillance from manned government aircraft (e.g. police helicopters), the Court has been reluctant to extend Fourth Amendment protections based on the idea that any activity carried out within view of the public categorically carries with it no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The problem with analogizing drones to manned government aircraft or any other observation of public activity is that drones can be used more pervasively than manned aircraft and reveal far more than the naked eye. In a recent case, U.S. v. Jones, the Court for the first time suggested that even where government surveillance takes place in public, the Fourth Amendment may still require a warrant. Although Jones involved data generated from a GPS tracking device planted on the underside of a car, some believe that because drone surveillance is at least as pervasive and continuous as GPS tracking, Fourth Amendment protections should similarly apply to drone usage. Nevertheless, the lack of an authoritative statement from the Supreme Court means that federal agencies are currently not obligated to seek a warrant or any other type of judicial review before collecting information with the use of a drone.

Privately Operated Drones

The Fourth Amendment, like most constitutional protections, applies only to government actions and not to those of private individuals or companies. This means that any privacy safeguards for private drone use must come through legislation, regulation, or pieces of the common law. Unfortunately, there are currently no legal protections specifically tailored to the private use of drones. Private use could potentially implicate different theories of property and tort law, such as trespass, nuisance, or intrusion upon seclusion, but these remedies are not well suited to drones. As with the Fourth Amendment, these remedies were never designed to specifically deal with drones and they leave individuals with limited legal recourse to stop information collection or to address abuses.

With this legal vacuum in place, a number of states have enacted their own privacy laws. Some states specifically prohibit law enforcement entities from using drones; others place restrictions on the data collected by drones; and still others focus exclusively on private actors by allowing lawsuits for certain types of privacy invasions. In Illinois, for example, law enforcement must destroy all information gathered by drones within 30 days of collection unless there is reasonable suspicion that the information contains evidence of criminal activity or the information is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. By contrast, Idaho completely prohibits recording individuals on their property absent consent, or from photographing an individual for the purpose of publishing or publicly disseminating the photograph.

Current and Future Reform Efforts

In the coming years, Congress must produce a legislative solution to harmonize drone privacy standards across the country. There is little doubt that drones hold tremendous promise as tools and as drivers of economic development, but privacy protections must be engrained into the regulatory environment from the outset. Already Congress is examining the issue and considering a range of legislative options. The proposed regulations in these bills range from narrow restrictions, such as warrant requirements for law enforcement operations, to more robust restrictions, such as a prohibition on the use of drones to collect of certain types of sensitive information. Congress cannot continue to kick the can down the road. With drone integration into the national airspace imminent, and a public increasingly concerned with privacy, lawmakers must work to enact baseline privacy protections sooner rather than later.

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