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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

You May Not Be Spying With a Drone -- But You Might Still be Breaking the Law

There has been a lot of recent news coverage over a Seattle woman's report that a drone flying outside of her window was spying on her. At Forbes, Gregory McNeal discusses this story and other stories about drones. McNeal argues that a lot of news coverage of drones is overly dramatic and even misleadingly alarmist. From McNeal's article:

Last month a Seattle woman said that a drone made her nervous because it was flying outside of her window. Early media reports called the device a flying “Peeping Tom.” Soon afterwards, national reports exploded with more than one hundred stories, focused mostly on the news media’s construction of a privacy violation. Now, the photograph of the flight has been provided to Forbes, and it shows that the company flying the drone was merely making a panoramic photograph of the city skyline. The arc of this story — a buzzworthy first report, that later ends up being false— is emblematic of many drone related stories which threaten to jeopardize the nascent industry. 

The Seattle non-incident gained national media attention after the woman called her building’s concierge to complain that the drone may have been used to look into her apartment. What received less prominent national media attention was the statement of Joe Vaughn, founder of startup company Skyris Imaging. Vaughn said that he and the pilot of the drone were shooting a panoramic view of the city for a client who was planning to build a 20-story office tower near the woman’s apartment building. 
. . . 
Vaughn demonstrated he takes concerns about safety and privacy seriously. He contacted the police to report what the company was doing, and said he had talked by phone with the woman who complained. ”I called her and let her know I’m sorry she was startled but we were doing an honest job, we were not peeping toms. There were no images taken at all of this

. . .

The Seattle story, like many other drone related stories reveals a pattern in coverage about these new devices. Journalists cover a story, featuring sensational allegations in the lede and introductory paragraphs, only to have the “but it wasn’t true” paragraph buried later in the story.

I agree that some of the coverage about the danger of drones and how they may violate privacy has been over-hyped. That tends to be par for the course with Internet coverage of just about everything these days.

But I also think that other coverage of drone use has been misleadingly optimistic towards harmful use of drones. Take, for example, an instance where a drone shot footage while it flew through a fireworks show. Many commentators marveled at how beautiful this was. But only a few people (including, interestingly, McNeal) pointed out that this drone use was highly dangerous and almost certainly illegal.

When it comes to discussions of drones and opinions on whether they are dangerous or harmless, it is easy to find coverage of identical events that is skewed in the direction of either opinion.

But there is a more specific point that I want to make in this post about the Seattle incident in particular. Joe Vaughn, the owner of the drone, claimed that he was not violating anybody's privacy because he was using the drone to survey a potential site for an office building. Visiting Vaughn's website reveals that Vaughn offers his services in a number of fields, including surveying land for real estate and agriculture, and for shooting marketing imagery.

While Vaughn's drone use may not be for the nefarious purpose of spying on somebody, in stating that he was using his drone for his real estate surveying business, Vaughn may have inadvertently admitted that he was using his drone illegally. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bans the use of drones for commercial purposes unless a business has applied for a permit to use the drone. And since the FAA's first authorization of such a permit only happened back in June, I am fairly certain that Vaughn is not flying his drone with federal authorization.

While Vaughn may not have been spying with his drone, he may have just admitted that he was using his drone illegally. Businesses that use drones for real estate surveying tend to veer dangerously close to the line that separates legal, hobbyist use of drones from potentially prohibited commercial use. And while there is certainly room for debate over whether the FAA's restrictions have the force of law, I think it is ironic that Vaughn's justification for his drone use may end up being an admission of illegal activity.

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