Drones raise privacy concerns

FAA proposes new regulations that focus on use of drones


The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed new regulations that focus on the safe use of drones, but privacy concerns continue to be one of the more discussed issues as their popularity grows.

"It's a wild west out there as far as drones right now," said Coral Gables-based data and privacy attorney Aldo Leiva.

YouTube is packed with stunning drone videos created by hobbyists. These hobbyists are recreationally using drones all over the country. But as their use increases, so do public privacy concerns.

One man said he was chased off a beach in Hawaii after his drone flew over some nude sunbathers.

"You know, we expect a little privacy here," one sunbather said. "It's called invasion of privacy. You're lucky that thing didn't get knocked out of the air."

However, the drone operator insisted he had the right to use his drone on the beach.

"Well you shouldn't lay out there naked," the operator said. "It's called breaking the law for laying out there nude."

In June 2014, Los Angeles Kings fans celebrating the team's Stanley Cup win outside the Staples Center knocked down a hovering white drone and used a skateboard to smash it.

When a Connecticut woman lashed out at a drone operator taking video of her face after asking him to turn off the camera, she was charged with assault. 

Leiva said the popularity of drones challenges this fundamental question:

"What is your expectation of privacy? Well it used to be that you could have a hedge around your backyard, and you had a reasonable expectation of privacy because who's going to fly over?" he said. "Now you have technology that will allow someone fly over your hedge and below the hedge line and get as close as it needs to take whatever pictures. Think of criminals who want to case out a house for a break-in. I would imagine there are very enterprising cyber criminals who will then basically just case out entire neighborhoods and then sell that information to criminals who want to break in. And you'll have a lot of people who are using this for creepy purposes."

The FAA released proposed rules that target safety issues with drones. One of those rules prohibits flying the crafts below 500 feet. 

"But the FAA does not regulate privacy," he said. "For example, are you allowed to fly your drone outside someone's house to peak in a window? While the FAA may forbid that on a safety basis, for example, a rotor hitting a person, the privacy issue is unaddressed."

Two years ago, state lawmakers passed a bill that limits the government's ability to use drones for unwarranted surveillance. This session, U.S. representative Larry Metz of Florida introduced a new bill to regulate drone use.

Bill 0649, "prohibits person,  state agency, or political subdivision from using a drone to capture an image of privately owned or occupied real property or of the owner, tenant, or occupant of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance without his or her written consent if a reasonable expectation of privacy exists."

It goes on to state, "the owner, tenant, or occupant may initiate a civil action for compensatory damages or seek injunctive relief against a violator; providing for the recovery of attorney fees and punitive damages."

Leiva explains the challenges in regulating drones.

"They don't want to squelch or shut down innovation or shut down new industry," he said. "But they also want to make sure that they're safeguarding the public from the risks that come with these new technologies."

"It's something we have to deal with," said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. "How can we do as much as we can to make sure we keep people's safe and their privacy as intact as possible while not destroying the ability of the United States to be on the forefront of new technology?"

In a presidential memorandum on Feb. 15, President Barack Obama addressed drone privacy concerns.

"The federal government shall take steps to ensure that privacy protections and policies relative to UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) continue to keep pace with these developments," he said. "Accordingly, agencies shall, prior to deployment of new UAS technology and at least every 3 years, examine their existing UAS policies and procedures relating to the collection, use, retention, and dissemination of information obtained by UAS, to ensure that privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties are protected."

Obama goes on to say the agencies collecting information using drones must include certain requirements in their policies and procedures.

"Agencies shall only collect information using UAS, or use UAS-collected information, to the extent that such collection or use is consistent with and relevant to an authorized purpose."

The address concludes with Obama instructing the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to work with companies and consumer advocacy groups to develop privacy rules for both commercial and private use.

"Within 90 days of the date of this memorandum the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and in consultation with other interested agencies, will initiate this multi-stakeholder engagement process to develop a framework regarding privacy, accountability, and transparency for commercial and private UAS use."

"We've never dealt with this before," said Leiva. "But like anything else before, it's not a matter of being, of outlawing technology, but we need to regulate it and we need to be aware of what that technology can do. I always tell people the story of what happened with the earliest cars out there. You had cars that had no seat belts, you had cars that had no regulation whatsoever, which side of the road you would drive on, these are rules that we now take for granted. But it took many, many years of fatalities, accidents, that eventually now we have a very highly well defined, well regulated industry. And now we're at the point, we're just at the inception of the adoption of these new drones. Now the question is, how far are we going to permit their use by industry or by government and how will that violate our civil rights as far as privacy? It's technology; it can be used like any technology, for good or for evil."

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