Drones and personal privacy: the debate goes on

By December 15, 2015
Un panneau indiquant une No fly zone

At the Drone World Expo held in San Jose, California on 17-18 November, a number of experts got together to discuss the threat to citizens’ privacy which the spread of unmanned aerial vehicles may potentially represent.

Drones continue to hit the headlines. In late November Amazon unveiled new information  about its Prime Air programme – basically a plan to use unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver packages in under thirty minutes. The Seattle-based e-tailing giant claims on its website that its UAVs will use ‘sense-and-avoid’ technology to automatically identify and steer clear of obstacles, no-fly zones and other hazards. Amazon says it is currently testing a range of prototypes, and is clearly counting on obtaining regulatory authorisation from the US authorities in the near future to fly drones at altitudes of up to just under 400 feet, i.e. the airspace which traditional aircraft do not occupy.

The company has also put some flesh on the bones of its policy announcement with an advertisement which shows a mother ordering a pair of football boots for her daughter, who is due to play a match a few hours later. The sky blue package is delivered by a blue, orange and white drone which lands in their garden in the blink of an eye.


The Amazon initiative appears to have strong appeal. Among others, US technology magazine Wired is arguing the case for drone technology. In an article commenting on the news from Amazon the magazine points out that in the next 30 years, the US population is set increase by 70 million, to 390 million people. In parallel, freight volumes are likely to grow 45% – largely due to the surge in online purchasing – to reach 29 billion tons a year.

The Wired journalist concludes by stating that at the moment the United States is not equipped to deal with this sort of increase in deliveries. ‟Trucks, which move nearly 70% of American freight, already waste $27 billion a year in time and fuel while stuck in traffic,” he writes. This view has also been expressed by Ariel Seidman, founder and CEO of Hivemapper, a Burlingame, California-based startup which has developed a community-edited mapping and navigation tool for drone fliers, whom L’Atelier interviewed recently. Moreover, the role played by drones does not have to be limited to delivery. UAVs are in fact multi-use platforms which can improve people’s daily lives in a whole range of ways.

Security and privacy issues

However there is one question that frequently arises and still remains to be properly answered: if the US regulators agree to let UAVs ply the skies freely, how will this this affect people’s right to privacy? This issue was the subject of a lively debate in a session entitled ‘Drones and Privacy: Addressing Public Concern’ at the Drone World Expo in San Jose. A number of speakers from all walks of life debated the potential uses UAVs and the various privacy issues that arise from them.

The discussions first focused on the subject of drones helping the police to maintain law and order and ensure citizens’ safety and security. ‟Drones can provide very useful support,” underlined  Tom Madigan, Captain at the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, explaining: ‟They can run suspects to ground, photograph them, carry out reconnaissance and rescue missions and so on.”

He stressed however that it is essential to inform the general public about such initiatives and ensure perfect transparency so citizens understand that the drones up in the sky are being used to help them and not to spy on them: ‟It’s vital to conduct opinion polls, hold press conferences, give interviews, organise debates, and so forth. If you make an effort to reassure the public, and drones are able to demonstrate their effectiveness, there’s no reason why there should be any negative reaction,” he argued.

Konstantin Kakaes, a Fellow on the International Security Program at the Washington D.C.-headquartered think tank New America Foundation, stressed the importance of using drones for specific purposes where they can show their full potential, and informing the general public about these uses. ‟If a drone allows you to take a photo of a gunman who’s hiding somewhere, which would otherwise be impossible, and facial reconnaissance software then allows you to identify the person, would anyone argue against the usefulness of the drone in this precise instance?” he asked.

Delivery drones

The conversation then turned to the commercial use of drones, especially for delivery services. Tom Madigan argued that the main risk here is not the potential threat to people’s privacy, but the danger that commercial drones will hamper such missions as fire and rescue operations. He cited a recent example of UAVs getting in the way of firefighter crews who were trying to land near Sacramento.

Meanwhile Don Roby, a member of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, pointed out the risk that residents may react violently if a non-identified UAV were to fly over their property. He invited the audience to imagine what would happen if everyone started shooting at drones flying over their homes and stressed how essential it will be to educate the general public so that they do not over-react to drone flights.

Michel Latiner, President of Chicago-based investment group Treehouse Adventures, went a step further, underlining the importance of setting up no-fly zones, precisely in order to avoid this kind of incident. Konstantin Kakaes concluded by pointing out that the threat to people’s privacy was not just about spying. There is also the question of the considerable noise pollution that drones might create: ‟How could you have a fleet of several thousand drones flying over residential areas and avoid the noise level becoming intolerable for the folks living underneath?” he asked, underlining: “This is a question that requires an urgent answer before we can think about using drones for mass delivery services.

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