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Think a Drone Is Spying on You? Here's What to Do

Drone
Ever get the feeling you're being watched? Don't overreact and do something rash. Lost Horizon Images/Getty Images

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In Oregon, a woman reportedly was sitting at her computer one night in March 2019 when she noticed an unusual light outside her kitchen window. We know what you're thinking — but, no, it wasn't some sort of alien spacecraft.

Instead, as the woman later told the CanbyNow Podcast, what she saw outside her window was an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, more commonly known as a drone. By the time she summoned her husband to the window to see it, the drone had vanished. To her frustration, when she contacted the local sheriff's office, she was told there wasn't anything that could be done about it.

It's not the first time that a homeowner has had a close encounter of the drone kind, and such incidents seem to be becoming more common, because the number of robotic aircraft is on the rise. The Federal Aviation Administration projected last year that the number of small UAVs owned by hobbyists would more double from 1.1 million in 2017 to 2.4 million by 2022, while the commercial fleet used by real estate companies and other private businesses will grow from about 110,000 to nearly 452,000 by 2022.

In an email, Professor Stephen Rice and Assistant Professor Scott Winter of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, who've studied public attitudes about drones, say there is considerable concern about privacy. "People don't like the idea of having drones flying around their homes, and not being sure if they're being photographed or videotaped," Rice says.

"Most researchers show there is an uncertainty that triggers fear," Winter concurs. "I can see the drone, flying over, but I don't know if it has audio or video. Most are not marked, or I can't see the marking. I don't know who is operating the drone and what capabilities it has and what it might be recording."

What If I Shoot Down a Drone?

In some cases, people have shot down UAVs hovering over their properties, an option that potentially could lead to serious legal woes. As Security Magazine explains, unmanned aircraft of any size are protected by federal law. Additionally, someone accused of shooting down a drone could face local charges as well.

So what can you do about a drone that you think is invading your privacy? In some cases, there may not be much you can do.

"People don't really understand how limited their rights to privacy are legally," emails Loretta Alkalay, a former FAA counsel who now works as a private attorney specializing in aviation law, and teaches as an adjunct instructor at Vaughn College in Flushing, New York. "You have a right to privacy only when you are somewhere where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, for example, inside your home and not out in public. So, if you are swimming or sunbathing in your fenced backyard, but you are visible from the air by planes or helicopters, courts have held that you don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The same reasoning would apply to drones."

"Similarly, you don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy if you're in front of an open window," Alkalay explains.

Alkalay also said that for the most part, people's concerns about drones being used to spy on them are overblown. For one thing, the small drones that are available on the consumer market don't carry big, heavy sophisticated cameras. "You can't make out things, unless you're super-close," she explains.

Can a Drone See Into My House?

"It's theoretically possible to use a drone to peer into someone's window, but no more so than you could with a telephoto lens from a tree or building across the street," she says. "And with most consumer drones, you wouldn't have the ability to zoom like you could with a telephoto."

Additionally, Alkalay explains that just because a drone is flying high over your house, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's taking pictures of you. It could be that the aircraft is headed elsewhere, or else is photographing something else that's outside your property line.

A drone that descends and hovers close to your house, though, is in a legally murkier area. "There are issues in terms of lower atmosphere that haven't been tested," Alkalay says. "If you flew a drone 5 feet [1.5 meters] over someone's property arguably that's not navigable airspace subject to federal control and a state could possibly control that, but it hasn't been tested in court."

Safest Bet? Call Local Law Enforcement

But if you do think a drone is being used in an intrusive way, Alkalay advises contacting local police instead of taking matters into your own hands. "If you're a peeping Tom, it doesn't matter what technology you use," she said.

Additionally, some states, such as Pennsylvania, have passed laws specifically barring the use of drones for spying on someone. But fear of ordinary peeping Toms may be distracting people from more worrisome actual privacy threats from drones.

"Insurance companies could fly over your property to look for trampolines or pit bulls," Alkalay says. "Local government agencies could fly over to see if you've made improvements — or added a swimming pool — to increase your taxes."

The lack of clear nationwide privacy standards for drones, along with public uneasiness about drones in general, may be hindering their use for beneficial purposes. "The current level of fear in the public is one of the things holding back our progress," Rice says.

"I would argue that 95 percent of drone use actually is for public benefit," says Rice, who co-authored this recent article in The Conversation, titled "Don't shoot! That drone overhead probably isn't invading your privacy." He notes that in one recent case in which a drone allegedly was shot down, for example, the robotic aircraft was being used to search for a lost dog.

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