Sunday Commentary II: Why Drones Are Potentially a Threat to Privacy and Worse


In 2011 the ACLU in a report wrote, “Unmanned aircraft carrying cameras raise the prospect of a significant new avenue for the sur­veillance of American life.” As the report noted, “Aerial surveillance from manned aircraft has been with us for decades… But manned aircraft are expensive to purchase, operate and maintain, and this expense has always imposed a natural limit on the government’s aerial surveillance capability. Now that sur­veillance can be carried out by unmanned aircraft, this natural limit is eroding.”

Catherine Crump and Jay Stanley of the ACLU wrote in Slate Magazine, “Of all the threats to privacy that we face today, why have drones caught the attention of the American public to such a remarkable degree? One possibility is that there’s something uniquely ominous about a robotic ‘eye in the sky.’ Many privacy invasions are abstract and invisible—data mining, for example, or the profiling of Internet users by online advertisers. Drones, on the other hand, are concrete and real, and the threat requires no explanation.”

But they argue that drones are more than just “the most visible example of a host of new surveillance technologies” – rather, they “have the potential to fundamentally alter the balance of power between individuals and the state.”

This is not just a liberal-conservative debate, either. The Republican Party in 2012 had a platform that stated, “We support pending legislation to prevent unwarranted or unreasonable governmental intrusion through the use of aerial surveillance.”

The ACLU has been working at the state and local level to help address these concerns. Ms. Crump and Mr. Stanley note, “The American public and our elected representatives can, for once, get ahead of the deployment curve—we can raise awareness, propose protections, and build support for them before the problems hit us in the face. If done right, this moment of hyperawareness about privacy could become a more permanent state of affairs.”

While working at the state and local level has brought some good results, they argue, “Ultimately, the best solution on drones would be for Congress to pass strong, uniform rules protecting everyone across the nation and putting privacy concerns to rest.”

For example, there is concern that the availability of drones and their ease of deployment will make them “general tools of surveillance.” Instead, they argue, law enforcement and government agencies should “utilize them only where they have a specific reason to believe that use of one will turn up evidence of criminal activity.”

Along these lines, the ACLU recommends the following safeguards:

USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.

DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.

POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.

ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.

WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Without such safeguards, the government could engage in the “abusive use of these tools in a way that could eventually eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities.”

That is the basic problem. Earlier this week, there was some discussion about the expectation of privacy. Generally speaking, in public, we don’t have an expectation of privacy. On the other hand, should the government be able to track our movements on the off chance that we might be engaging in an unlawful activity?

Yes, I understand that there are surveillance cameras everywhere, but there is a difference between a private company having a video camera to protect their property and premises, and the government using the data to track the movements of otherwise law abiding citizens.

I don’t buy into the belief that if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.

One example is the case of Brandon Mayfield. On May 6, 2004, the FBI arrested Mr. Mayfield, an attorney in Oregon, and held him for over two weeks on suspicion of being connected to the Madrid bombing, after investigators matched Mr. Mayfield’s fingerprints to fingerprints on a bag containing detonating devices discovered by Spanish authorities.

They erred in their assessment, which would force forensic investigators to re-think how fingerprint matches are identified. The FBI clearly erred in how it chose to handle the case, as well as in its identification of Mr. Mayfield, but this illustrates the point of having access to technology and data without safeguards and limitations.

The technology can be used to imply guilt where none exists. As investigators accumulate data on a particular subject, there are times when confirmation bias colors their analysis and the investigators see only the data points that confirm their theories and discard analysis that undermines it.

That was one problem that occurred in New York in 1989, when the rush to determine who had raped and assaulted a woman in Central Park led police to immediately zone in on five youths and, in the process, they ignored real evidence that would have exonerated the kids.

I have used enough video in my work with the Vanguard to recognize that sometimes the video will not pick up the full picture. Where the video from a drone might show some things, it may miss other important evidence.

Sports fans might want to consider the use of video replay in football or baseball – despite multiple camera angles, there are plays where video evidence is not conclusive on key plays. They have set the bar high for overturning the call of a human official – the video evidence must be clear and indisputable. More often than not, the ruling ends up being that the play stands as called, as the video evidence is not enough to conclusively determine one way or another.

And that is with multiple camera angles shot by human operators who are trained to follow the ball and the play.

The ACLU rules are actually fairly solid – they allow surveillance as a tool, but force the law enforcement agency to use them as tools to aid in a specific investigation, rather than a broad fishing net to see what they catch.

Building those safeguards into place may prevent more wrong accusations or worse yet, wrongful convictions.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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19 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary II: Why Drones Are Potentially a Threat to Privacy and Worse”

  1. hpierce

    Gotta say this:  “Drones don’t invade privacy; people invade privacy”.

    Drones have no greater potential to invade privacy than use of the internet does.  Actually, much less.  If he wanted to, David could more invade any of our privacy (whether we post anonymously or not) than any drone could.

    1. Anon

      In fact the latest thing I read was that hackers can watch what you do through your computer’s video-cam.  I close my laptop computer every day unless I am using it – others suggest putting tape over the lens.

  2. Biddlin

    This train pulled out of the station decades ago. Drones will deliver goods, survey and surveil less disruptively than the UPS truck and the private detective you hired to catch your crooked employee or cheating spouse. “The man,” as well as a host of commercial and private interests, can watch you, anytime anywhere and have had that capacity for quite some time.


  3. Tia Will

    Drones have no greater potential to invade privacy than use of the internet does”

    True except that one can relatively easily make the decision not to use the Internet. It would be quite difficult to live one’s life without ever leaving one’s home thus making oneself susceptible to surveillance. I would think that the incorporation of drones would be warmly welcomed by police and other authorities by allowing them to monitor activity without putting themselves at risk.

  4. DavisBurns

    Readers, how would you feel if your neighbor had one of these and liked to fly it around the neighborhood?  Do we have the right to keep them out of the air space over our houses?

    While on vacation, we ran  into folks who had one in two different places.  Both times it seemed rather harmless but both were in remote places and it seemed like an invitation to have our equipment and our security cased if the user was so inclined.  I used to backpack and encountered people in remote areas who set up camp, went on day hikes and came back to find their campsite cleaned out.  It is not only distressing and expensive but could put people in danger.  We used to feel like we were safe if we were remote.  Now there are more people and fewer remote places.  Add in these drones and backpacking or simply being in remote places puts us and our stuff at risk.  We set up with a lot of astrophotography equipment that we can’t easily put away and can be ruined with causal misuse.  Having a yahoo pull up miles away and using a drone makes me VERY UNCOMFORTABLE.  Having the government use them is bad enough (no, I don’t think it is okay) but the use by the general public may be worse.

  5. PhilColeman

    I chased down a high school friend from 50 years past, and two thousand miles away. Using Facebook, it was quite easy. We exchanged several E-mails, and in one of them he commented on my landscaping. Using Google Earth, my buddy was curious and checked out my house, and then panned around my neighborhood. All this while sitting at his kitchen table in Michigan.

    I’m not one to easily fall prey to the “Big Brother Syndrome,” but that episode left me a little bit disturbed. I thought of ex-wives being “stalked” by vindictive spouses, from afar. To me, the surveillance threat exists far greater in the private sector than the public.

    Today’s reality is that you’d better keep your lawn mowed, or some guy from Pakistan will see you’ve been tardy on your yard work.

    1. DavisBurns

      I can “drive” in front of my dad’s rural property in Tennessee then to my sister’s place and my brother’s.  It is surreal.  We were able to tell when they did map updates when we were remodeling our house.

  6. Miwok

    There are way too many $179 copters and GoPro fanatics out there to read a law and put it in the closet.

    Will anyone respect a law? Not while they have a toy, they will play with it. A law to restrict Law Enforcement might be good, or they will continue to collect data hoping to glean a golden nugget.

    I am distressed but not surprised to hear people in remote areas, and researchers are targets for thieves. But the citizens of California are not concerned with small crimes and the research that gets lost with the thefts.

    When the public starts losing their power to their homes they might start thinking about this more? When they lose their internet or cell coverage because of thieves, they might feel the drones helped to spy on them should be restricted. When these drones start hurting their kids, by running onto them at sports events by some moron flying over a kids’ soccer game, or on the street, maybe there will be more reactions?

    Will there be a different law for LE, Kids, and Thieves? Like Guns, they all will have them, with various quality, skill and experience, and intent for use.

  7. DavisBurns

    We have a neighbor who likes to fly using an engine in a backpack and a paraglider-called power paragliding.  He can’t take off or fly over populated areas.  He has to go outside town to take off and land.  If he uses private land he has to have permission.  Maybe he has to have permission to use public land too, not sure.  Anyway, the air space over incorporated areas is protected from random people flying over.  I believe the reasoning is it is a public safety threat if you lose control and crash.  Seems like the same laws should apply to drones.  In fact, the model airplane enthusiasts have a site outside of town where they can fly their planes.  I will bet you it is not legal to fly a drone over a city including filming your kid’s soccer game or checking out your neighbors swimming habits.  Where are the lawyers among us to give us an opinion? I am inclined to call the police if I see a drone being used in town and see what happens.

  8. Napoleon Pig IV

    Don’t worry. The Chinese have a solution:

    “China has developed and successfully tested a highly accurate laser defense system against light drones. The homemade machine boasts a two-kilometer range and can down “various small aircraft” within five seconds of locating its target.”  Here’s the link: 


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