March 27, 2023

Federal and state or local drone regulations are often focused on protecting privacy.  But are more regulations really the way to protect you?  Maybe not, say industry experts.

When Senator Market (D-MA) introduced legislation earlier this month aimed at drone privacy, the industry issued a collective groan.  The proposal – the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2017 – calls for drone operators to provide detailed information of their flights to the government.  The proposed Act is a response to the perceived “potential for unmanned aircraft system technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections,” and states that, as “currently, no explicit privacy protections or public transparency measures with respect to such system technology are built into the law…Federal standards for informing the public and protecting individual privacy with respect to unmanned aircraft systems are needed.”

In addition, the most recent version of the FAA Reauthorization Act calls for research and action on drone privacy issues – requiring lawmakers and  the FAA to address the issue as a problem.

State and Local Drone Privacy Laws

The idea that drone privacy laws are needed seems pervasive.  According to the National Conference of State Legislators, over 38 states are considering drone legislation in 2017.  Many of the proposals relate to privacy.  A significant proportion of the state drone laws already passed concern privacy, such as Virginia’s HB 2350 making it a Class 1 misdemeanor to “use UAS to trespass upon the property of another for the purpose of secretly or furtively peeping, spying, or attempting to peep or spy into a dwelling or occupied building located on such property.”

The vast majority of these laws – both at the state and local levels – simply apply a specific penalty for illegal behavior conducted with a drone.  But are these laws really providing additional protections for citizens?  Given that there are laws against spying and harassment already in force across the country, maybe not.

Lisa Ellman, spokesperson for the Commercial Drone Alliance, says that additional regulations that just restate the existing laws aren’t helpful.  “Drones are a platform for a camera, just like pole cameras and helicopters and satellites,” says Ellman. “Public apprehension around new technologies is common, but it’s also important to understand that there are a range of technology-neutral privacy laws and rules that protect us already.”

“We’re in the early stages of the commercial drone industry, and the need for additional and duplicative laws and rules is not immediately clear. In fact, industry and privacy advocates agreed upon a set of voluntary privacy best practices last year, and we need to let these best practices have a chance to work.”

Privacy Best Practices for Drones

The best practices that Ellman refers to are those published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an arm of the Department of Commerce, last year.  The agency summarizes the voluntary best practices with these four points:

  • inform affected persons of UAS use and the collection of data
  • take care in the collection and storage of information that identifies a particular person;
  • limit the use and sharing of such data;
  • secure data; and
  • monitor and comply with the law as it evolves.

These recommendations seem like common sense to most commercial drone operators – and in fact follow the procedures that responsible commercial operators already follow.  Adhering to these recommendations should be enough to ensure that people on the ground don’t feel that somehow their privacy has been violated when a drone flies overhead.

Why Drone Privacy Laws at All?

Not everyone was happy with even the recommendations for best practices.  The Drone Manufacturers Alliance, for example, refused to sign off on the NTIA’s best practices.  Their argument was simple.  If any teenager carrying a cell phone doesn’t have to sign off on best practices for privacy – and we all know about the damage that their stolen pictures can do – why single out drones for special regulation?

Sweden recently backed down on it’s inclusion of drones under the country’s strict surveillance laws – after finding that the regulations served only to limit legitimate applications of the commercial drone industry.

The fact is that drone specific regulation may not be the most reasonable or the most effective way to protect privacy.  Harassment, stalking, and surveillance are already illegal; local law enforcement are well equipped to deal with malefactors whether they are using binoculars or a drone.  Requiring special documentation, reports, or filing from commercial pilots adds nothing to the solution: the responsible operators who will have to adhere to additional requirements were never the problem in the first place.


Miriam McNabb

Miriam McNabb is the CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. She writes for DRONELIFE on current news, financial trends, and FAA regulations. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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