As sales of drones increase so do privacy concerns

February 12, 2013 5:05:23 AM PST
In the last year, the sales of drones in this country have skyrocketed and not for use by police or the military. Increasingly, it is private citizens who are putting these eyes in the skies. The question is who's watching them?

On a frigid Saturday morning along the banks of the Delaware River, Steve Hindi was hot on the trail of what he calls a case of animal cruelty.

An animal rights activist in town from Chicago, Hindi came too far to let a privacy wall stop him from seeing the alleged activity which is why he brought along a drone.

Armed with a video camera and a powerful zoom, he hovered 400 feet over the subjects of his private investigation, seeing what they do without them ever knowing he's there.

"You want this. This is technology you want to develop," Hindi said.

It seems many agree.

The FAA now forecasts that unmanned aircraft will be a $94-billion dollar business in the next decade.

It is a burgeoning industry that some Penn students are pioneering in their University City lab; they are designing unmanned technology of the very near future.

The practical uses are near endless: farmers keeping an eye on vast acres of crops, news media getting a high angle at a relatively low cost, and for police, who just days ago used a drone to help end a week long hostage standoff in Alabama, it's a potential game changer.

"It is going to revolutionize police work. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, it's going to happen," Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood said.

But along with that protection comes concern over privacy.

"People have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their homes and in their backyards," Scott Vernick, privacy attorney with Fox Rothschild LLP of Philadelphia, said.

Vernick says as many as 1,000 drones are purchased for civilian use every month; the sales far out-pacing the law's ability to keep up.

Right now, nearly a dozen states are considering legislation to regulate drones, but Vernick says there are no particular laws at the moment.

That makes it easy for anyone with a few hundred dollars to buy a drone online for the purpose of peeping, but that doesn't give you free reign to spy.

This brings us back to that brisk morning along the Delaware River, and Hindi's group's otherwise noble goal to uncover what they call clear cut animal abuse, shooting live pigeons that often don't die from the shot.

And while that is legal in Pennsylvania, Hindi's recording of it may not be.

Until the law says otherwise, he argues the good of his actions outweighs the bad he seeks to document.

"These offer us so much opportunity. All you have to do is then set up laws that protect all of us, while at the same time we make use of that technology, all of the positives that it offers," Hindi said.

"It comes with a price, less privacy, that's true, and that's why you have to find the right balance about how to use the technology appropriately," Vernick said.

House Bill 452, introduced in the Pennsylvania House last week, seeks to outlaw this very kind of drone surveillance, but its passage is far from a sure thing.

Right now, this bill is still in committee.