How lawmakers aim to protect you from a drone invasion
Lately, drones seem to be everywhere. They’re monitoring endangered wildlife, launching missiles, mapping rainforests, and filming athletes. They can fly high above a neighborhood or just hover outside a bedroom window. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has already built robotic fliers not much larger than an insect; once batteries become small enough, they may become quite literally a fly on the wall. The opportunities—and potential violations of privacy—seem endless. But current and new laws may offer some protection.In the United States, the Supreme Court has concluded that nobody owns the airways and anyone can take pictures in public. As a result, citizens have been convicted of growing marijuana in their own backyards based on naked-eye observations made from planes flying overhead in “public navigable airspace.” On the other hand, a newly proposed law in California would make it illegal for paparazzi to use drones to snap pictures of celebrities on their own property.Existing laws also ban a peeping Tom from setting up in a tree at the edge of your property and peering into your bathroom window with binoculars; the same laws are likely to extend to flying a drone outside the same window. The Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens inside their homes from unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant, may shield Americans from miniature government drones searching for illicit substances. 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Many other countries, too, are debating how to balance privacy and freedom as drones proliferate.Creepy as it is to be watched from aircraft controlled by others, drones are hardly privacy worry No. 1, says John Villasenor, a policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., because there are ways to collect far more information easily. “Drone privacy is a legitimate concern,” Villasenor says. “But there are other technologies, such as mobile phones and the use of data gathered by mobile apps running on those phones, that, for me at least, raise far more pressing privacy issues.”For more on privacy and to take a quiz on your own privacy IQ, see “The end of privacy” special section in this week’s issue of Science.