We Can’t Build Fences in the Air Against Amazon Drones, Damn

We Can’t Build Fences in the Air Against Amazon Drones, Damn

There’s been a lot of buzz in the news recently over drones. We aren’t talking about drones overseas conducting covert operations and bombing runs, but instead the possibility of drones delivering kitty litter to your home 30 minutes after you’ve ordered it. This goes far beyond having a pizza or chinese food delivered to your house. At least you see the human face-to-face in that scenario. Amazon drones might be getting the most press right now but UPS is also looking into delivery drones, according to The Verge. This is going to have many people thinking twice about the conflict between privacy and ‘public airspace’.

Rand Paul finally weighed in on the discussion of Amazon drones on The Daily Caller and “while he doesn’t necessarily object to Amazon experimenting with delivery drones, he is concerned that such technology could threaten Americans’ privacy.”

“I’m also worried about private entities that would want to look into your yard, in your windows, in your mailbox, things like that,” Paul added. “So I do think when we’re looking at privacy, it’s a concern.”

“Traditionally, we had rules – nobody could come and look in your window, a peeping tom gets arrested,” Paul said. “I think we’re going to have to apply that…to technology at some point.”

A peeping tom is one thing but the nature of public airspace is where things might get tricky. Matt Hickey of Forbes wrote about a “peeping tom” drone incident earlier this year. In that case, it was only a neighbor, a civilian, rather than a corporation flying an aerial drone outside someone’s house.

“My husband went to talk to the man on the sidewalk outside our home who [sic] was operating the drone with a remote control, to ask him to not fly his drone near our home. The man insisted that it is legal for him to fly an aerial drone over our yard and adjacent to our windows,” reported the woman involved. …

“The woman refuses to provide any more details about this situation, including her name, but the story itself has enough to it that it’s easy to see where the conflict lies. The First Amendment protects the rights of citizens to collect data, and other laws provide that the air itself is free for all to use. Add in the concept of the expectation of privacy and we get arrive in a legal grey area that’s something new.”

“For example, a Supreme Court ruling in 1946 called the air above private property a “public highway”. But inexpensive HD camera-equipped hovering drones didn’t exist in 1946[.]”

Alexis C. Madrigal of The Atlantic pondered some of the questions regarding public airspace last year. Admittedly, this was inspired by his own adventures with a camera-bearing toy drone and an evil neighborhood cat, but it still had him asking: Was he trespassing when he flew his drone over people’s yards? If it had been done by foot, there would be no question, but in the air? He asked Timothy Ravich, an aviation lawyer, who replied there was always the possibility of a suit, but:

Regardless of whether someone technically had the right to stop me from flying my little UAV over a house, “It’s quite another thing to exercise those rights in a court of law,” Ravitch said. “If someone does take a Parrot [drone] and fly it over your house every day for a year. Are you injured? What are the actual damages?”

In other words: what are you gonna do about it?

“What [property] rights you have beyond what you can physically touch has always been difficult for the law to grapple with,” Ravich told me.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” Ravitch said. “But we don’t build fences in the air.”

Where ‘public airspace’ begins and ends is going to make privacy debates tricky. Most of us have neighbors so even if our neighbor opts to have a delivery, where does that leave us next door? There is no easy way to opt out of Amazon drones flying over our yards… unless you want to invest in an AR-15 as suggested by CNET’s Chris Matyszczyk. What are your thoughts? Let us know by commenting below!

Photograph courtesy of WD Wilson, via Flickr Creative Commons

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