Dianne Feinstein is one lawmaker familiar with both types of drones, and the US senator from California now challenges the assertion that the skies should be completely open. Last January, she encountered one flying overhead just outside her window. During a Senate committee hearing on the future of unmanned aviation, she testified about how a group protesting government surveillance had sent the drone flying outside her house. “I went to the window to peek out and see who was there. And there was a drone right there at the window looking out at me,” Feinstein said. “What kind of camera was mounted on it? What kind of microphone? Could an enterprising person have fastened a firearm to it? These are questions that demand answers. Even with civilian drone technology in its infancy, privacy concerns are significant.”
Virtually every state in the union is boring into the issues Feinstein raises, and so far nine states have enacted legislation regulating the use of drones. In Connecticut, state lawmakers recently proposed a bill that would add penalties for committing a crime with a drone, including 10 years in prison for voyeurism, stalking, and harassment, and up to 20 years for using a drone as a deadly weapon.
“Drones can be used for a lot of amazing things—we certainly don’t want to prohibit people from using drones in a productive manner—but there’s potential for abuse,” says Democratic State Rep. James Albis of East Haven. “It’s a conversation that a lot of states are having, whether they are blue, red, or purple states. It’s fascinating to see the various dialogues.”
Whereas the Connecticut legislation is intended to protect the privacy rights of individuals, states including Florida, Illinois, Montana, Oregon, and Tennessee are more concerned about making sure law enforcement officials don’t overreach. In Texas, meanwhile, the debate has centered on protecting landowners from the aerial gaze of environmentalists or animal rights groups. Their concern arose after a hobbyist flew a remotely operated aircraft along the Trinity River in Texas and by chance recorded large amounts of pig blood pouring into a tributary creek from a nearby slaughterhouse. After the hobbyist made the footage public, the facilities were shuttered and the company was charged with illegally dumping industrial waste.
In response, the Texas legislature passed a bill establishing criminal penalties for anyone who—using a remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft—takes photographs of private property without the owner’s permission. Margot Kaminsky, executive director of the Information Society Project and a lecturer in law at Yale, considers the new law problematic. The interesting question right now is “how to balance the First Amendment right of the photographer with the privacy interest of the person being photographed,” she says. “And the states are trying to find the appropriate balance.”
Outside the US, drones are finding a more welcoming legal climate. As a visit to YouTube will attest, over the last few years, citizen journalists and traditional reporters have used drones to document protests in Poland, Ukraine, Thailand, and Venezuela—on occasion disputing official storylines about the size of the demonstrations. In Turkey, police shot down a drone documenting a protest at Taksim Square last year—an event captured on video and uploaded to YouTube. (Drones can seem unsettlingly sentient, and the downing of the drone was oddly disturbing, as if police had shot a bird out of the sky.)
News organizations in Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico have used drones to cover protests, elections, and traffic jams. And in Africa, a Kenyan digital journalist launched African SkyCam last year. For now, SkyCam has a drone team at a newspaper in Nairobi, but there are plans to expand the pilot project, which is supported by the Knight Foundation, to the rest of the continent.
In Britain, the BBC started experimenting with drones in earnest last year and currently owns three models, which are used to record video—primarily for feature stories such as vivid dispatches from Brazil’s cities and rainforest in advance of the World Cup. “It enables you to get views from a unique perspective and it gets you the ability to transition between two shots; that dreamlike motion of flying off things, and over things, which previously was only available to Hollywood,” says Tom Hannen, senior innovations producer at the BBC Global Video Unit. The BBC prefers to call these devices flying cameras.
Though Hannen won’t rule out the use of drones for news stories in the future, the BBC has held back so far—in part because in the UK, where drones are legal but strictly regulated, aviation authorities require the submission of a flight plan in advance, making it impractical in most breaking news situations.