For a while, it has seemed that privacy fears about unmanned aircraft – commonly referred to as drones – might lead to their downfall.
The potential benefits of drones are vast, from speedy package deliveries to cost-effective and safe power line or pipeline inspections. But the lively debate over how to integrate this technology into U.S. airspace has been punctuated by events in which drones have been used in questionable ways, including incidents in which they have hovered over people’s property or taken pictures of sunbathers.
Some consumer-privacy advocates and lawmakers panicked and rushed to create a legislative solution. Yet while it is certainly important to address salient privacy concerns, policymakers should not let hypothetical fears drive the conversation in ways that unjustly limit commercial uses of drones.
California’s Legislature recently passed a bill that would ban drones from flying lower than 350 feet over someone’s property without permission. While the bill’s authors claim it was intended to protect privacy for landowners, there is no evidence that this is actually a serious problem for property owners, especially because there are already a host of laws that prevent stalking, harassment and voyeurism. Instead, the law would have the unintended consequence of inhibiting the nascent drone industry.
Luckily, innovation prevailed over unfounded fears. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill Sept. 10, saying he believed the legislation could have “unintended consequences.”
While the technology may be new, the debate over whether a groundbreaking innovation can be used to violate someone’s privacy is not. In fact, the introduction of many new technologies is often quickly followed by public panic about how these technologies might lead to an erosion of personal privacy. These concerns then fade away over time as the public benefits of the technology become clearer.
That is not to say people’s privacy concerns are not important. To the extent that concerns over drone surveillance are legitimate, they should be taken seriously. However, it is important to recognize that the public’s reaction is often exaggerated, and rushing to judgment can slow innovation and adoption of new technologies.
When hot-air balloons were introduced in the 1800s, lawyers debated whether balloonists who flew over another person’s land violated their privacy rights. Similarly, in the early 1900s, people argued over whether airplanes had the right to fly over landowners’ property.
“It is evident that flying man has no absolute right to pass over the property of another,” Denys Myers, a lawyer, argued at the time. Imagine how different the world would be today if property owners could bar airplanes from flying above their land. The booming aerospace industry simply would not exist.
Just as they did for hot-air balloons and passenger planes, privacy advocates have escalated this drone conflict. The American Civil Liberties Union has said law enforcement agencies could use this technology for “mass suspicionless surveillance.” And the media has perpetuated exaggerated threats with eye-catching headlines such as “Goodbye, privacy: ‘Self-drones’ will hover over vacationers” and “As spy drones come to the U.S., we must protect our privacy.”
Naturally, many consumers are expressing concerns about drones, with at least one person going so far as to recklessly shoot down one with a shotgun.
Policymakers should be careful to not get swept up in these privacy panics about new technologies. Unfounded fear can lead to ill-conceived policy responses that either hinder or fail to adequately take advantage of technologies before they mature. Instead, policymakers should follow Brown’s lead to see through hypothetical privacy harms and address only concerns that have actually manifested. Doing so will ensure innovation is put first to everyone’s benefit.
Alan McQuinn is a research assistant at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank focused on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy.