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Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Featured, Politics | 4 comments

States “Race to the Bottom” on Drone Privacy

Coming soon to a town near you!     Credit: Shutterstock

Coming soon to a town near you! Credit: Shutterstock

States are currently in a race to the bottom, sacrificing privacy concerns for the sake of economic growth. The FAA is in the process of selecting six test sites for unmanned aerial drones and states are in a vicious competition for the accompanying jobs.

Some states, like Washington and North Dakota, have a natural advantage, due to their already well-established drone industry or favorable testing conditions. The rewards are promising; the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (albeit a biased source) estimates that the drone industry could create as many as 100,000 jobs by 2025.

The problem is that when the competition gets fierce, state and local governments start to try to sweeten the deal for manufacturers, often at the expense of the rest of the populace. Sometimes state and local governments dole out ill-advised tax breaks and credits costing taxpayers millions, other times it’s ditching environmental regulations. Now, it’s privacy concerns.

While states like Florida and Virginia are seeking to regulate drones, others are shying away for fear of losing jobs. North Dakota, for instance, backed down from a bill which would have required the police to obtain a warrant before using drones and required that the images collected by drones be destroyed within 90 days. The bill passed the House with bi-partisan support but flopped in the Senate. One state senator explains, “Now that we’ve defeated that bill in the Senate, it sends a clear message to the FAA that North Dakota‚Äôs open for business and wants to continue to play an important role in developing the UAS industry.”

The race to the bottom could easily be abated by federal regulation. Most drones will fly in federal airspace, and the FAA is therefore tasked with laying out some ground rules by 2015. In the vacuum, however, states are left to make their own policy. Currently, 39 states are considering laws regulating the use of drones. This, however, means a patchwork of laws and regulations which would be less than ideal. It would also allow some states to game the system by weakening protections to entice employers.

Some drone use is relatively uncontroversial; drones that monitor crops are benign. Drones that monitor people are less so, and raise important constitutional questions. Already police stations in Seattle and Oakland have faced pressure when they purchased drones for policing use. A Congressional Research Service report from last month raised numerous legal quandaries presented by drones. It’s clear, however, that drone regulations should be designed to protect citizens, not merely attract jobs.

This piece originally appeared on

Sean McElwee can be reached at [email protected]

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Copyright 2013 The Moderate Voice
  • dduck

    Aside from safety and noise issues, what is the difference between a drone and a helicopter flying above. Many times, there are up to three helicopters circling above Manhattan at various spots.


    Dduck, your question is a good one. I’m not entirely equipped to answer, but the ACLU has addressed it.

  • dduck

    SM, thanks for the link. It appears so far the only differences are noise and cost.
    For that matter, what about the videos from cameras all over the place. Although they are only 30 feet above us, they are still “unmanned observation platforms”.

    BTW: if you are on a roof making love, then you are giving up your privacy.

  • The law has long recognized different standards based on “reasonable expectation of privacy.” A home phone (high expectation of privacy) has greater protection than a public phone (where others nearby could overhear). Your backyard has greater protection than driving a car in public. Attorney-client privilege can be overcome if the conversation takes place in public where it can be overheard. This is why I always advise young attorneys not to meet clients in bars or restaurants.

    So what does all this mean? First, street cameras, located where you can only be seen if you choose to be out in public, and where others can readily view your activities, has a reduced expectation of privacy compared to a drone hovering above your back yard with camera pointed into your window. Second, the noise of a helicopter provides a “warning”. Small surveillance drones, electrically operated, do not.

    The differences may not be huge at first blush. But, to us civil libertarian types, they are significant enough to draw our attention.

    Now I’ll go read the ACLU link & see how much more intelligently they have framed this.

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