Drones and Privacy

Combat attack drone
combat drone isolated on white background

The use of drones could be innocent or for nefarious reasons. They could be something as simple as taking aerial photos of a sunset over the beach. But this kind of high-tech device could be used to snoop on someone inside of their house too. So the use of drones as snooping devices intrigues attorney Michael Ehline. He says UAV’s bring to mind many legal complications.

Government agencies and the military have used the unmanned aerial craft for years. For example, it is helping to fight terrorism. And it has even been used to conduct domestic surveillance for years. But now, private companies like Amazon are seeking FAA approval for business use. For example, their “Prime Air” program recently hit the news. The Amazon website claims that companies can use aerial devices for delivering online merchandise, and compare pizza delivery is no different.

Private Citizens And Drones.

Private citizens are not left out of the equation. Some citizens may be intrigued.  And other people who were hobbyists of this kind of technology may be full-blown into it. One of these people is Santa Barbara resident Cliff Baldridge, a tech-savvy aficionado and an everything Google expert. He has used radio-controlled vehicles for approximately three decades and uses drone aircraft for practical and charitable purposes.

Mr. Baldridege believes he is an expert and uses drones to capture Santa Barbara vistas’ aerial footage and then posts them on his Santa Barbara Arts TV page on YouTube. The pictures are taken with an AR Drone 2.0, which he has modified to hold a Go Pro HD camera. Using the modified technology enables Mr. Baldridge to have access to stunning images and video, he said. He also said that without the drone’s utilization, he would never be able to capture these images.

  • Potential Liability Issues?

Personal injury lawyer Michael Ehline, who writes a legal blog, said Mr. Baldridge must be careful about using drones and the film. The licensed professional stated that there could be two legal issues with the use of these aircraft, the right to privacy and the FAA. Mr. Ehline said that even following the FAA licensing rules, the penal code is another issue. And this section includes people maintaining their reasonable expectation of privacy.

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

So the law is that recording in public places under California law is permitted, so long as you keep your reasonable expectation of privacy intact. An example would be people at the beach who are not aware they are on tape. So now could be a violation of the law. But at the same time, videoing a police officer making an arrest remains legal.

This type of technology gives Mr. Ehline pause since he believes it is possible shortly that legislators and judges will agree with government drone use. But of course, they will restrict private citizen’s use of the aircraft.

He said that it would not be unforeseen for law enforcement to argue they have the right to use drones to record but simultaneously take that ability out of ordinary citizens’ hands. Mr. Ehline adds that in California, the stance taken by the courts is a pro-government position.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley and a Santa Barbara representative made a statement for the News-Press that they do not use drones to their knowledge. Mr. Ehline still sees the use of these aerial vehicles could quickly become an invasion of privacy. And he said that law enforcement should be held accountable. Moreover, Ehline went on to say how beautiful it would be to have a drone capture a police stop recording the incident.

Recording Police Reduced Police Misconduct?

He cited Rialto’s case, where a systematic video recording of police officers on the job showed an 80% reduction in misconduct reports.  In this situation, the officers carried cameras. And those devices recorded their actions. But imagine how much better this would be with drones? I mean, it could keep less than admirable officers acting within the law, right?

The other issue is that it could provide the government with the Legislature’s intends for using surveillance without a warrant. Even the drones planned to be used by Amazon could be tapped into. Companies like Amazon attempting to get approval for enhanced business opportunities could decide to go along with the government’s requests for drone information to gain that support.

The current private drone use regulations include:

  • Flying below 400 feet.

Mr. Baldridge said that the guidelines for recreational and hobbyists come from in 1981 circular.  And these standards state that airborne model aircraft should remain a “sufficient distance from populated areas.” And Baldridge says you should not fly the craft above 400 feet.

Also, drones must remain within sight of the pilot at all times. And this is to avoid endangering others and to avoid charges of recklessness.

  • Privacy.

Mr. Baldridge said that there is a general expectation of privacy in public. And he has not heard of any cases in Santa Barbara where people are concerned about their privacy. But he said that when this craft is over 50 feet in the air, it is as high as a palm tree. So for him, it’s filming public scenery and landscape. So, in that case, the drone isn’t low enough to look in someone’s windows.

According to District Attorney Dudley, she does not know of any current lawsuits of private done use.

  • The FAA is working to establish rules to include drone use in the national airspace.
  • This process is going slowly, and the agency has reported being behind schedule in developing standards. So the agency will not meet a September 2015 deadline. Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel III stated as much at a House Transportation aviation subcommittee back in 2014.

The California Assembly passed drone-related legislation pending; Governor Brown finally signed AB 2306. The law now codifies the illegality of unmanned aircraft systems to invade a person’s privacy.

  • Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman, spoke out about a personal incident with a drone. And that has made her question her backing of the NSA surveillance program in the past about personal privacy. Sen. Feinstein said on 60 Minutes that she was in her home and a demonstration outside.  When she went to look out the window, there was a drone outside the window.

She said this made her question what benefit there was to society to have drone use. Also, she pondered the roles of stalking or invaded privacy. She wondered about the distance the drone comes to the house. The legal part of drone regulation remains to be discovered. Whether or not California legislation will clamp down on drones, invasion of privacy, or other nuisance.

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Ehline Law Firm - Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC
Attorney at Law
Michael P. Ehline Esq.
Downtown Los Angeles Corporate Offices

Downtown Los Angeles Office
633 West 5th Street #2890
Los Angeles, CA 90071

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633 West 5th Street #2890
Los Angeles, CA 90071
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