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Is privacy why the shotgun barked boom at the little drone?

Oct 02, 20145 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

If a little quadcopter flew near or over your property, would you feel like your privacy was violated? Do you know the degree of detail captured in a hobbyist's footage? Would it even matter?

Let’s say you are outside in your yard and a quadcopter flies overhead, but not quite over your property. You don’t know if it’s recording or, if it is, the level of detail the camera captures. What do you do? One man in New Jersey whipped out a shotgun and shot it down. That’s crazy-scary, but was privacy the root issue? We’ll get back to that in a bit.

Video footage taken from a higher vantage point, such as a drone, can be stunning. The drone footage of thousands upon thousands of Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors, shot by Nero Chan, is a fine example of showing how many people are protesting “since the riot police responded to demonstrations with tear gas.”

A bird’s-eye view that would normally require a “private plane, helicopter or balloon” is why Martha Stewart “loved” her drone. In fact, she loved it so much that she now owns three drones. “They’re nice to have to take aerial photographs of your own property, or of parties that you’re having or spying on your guests. Or whatever,” she said.

There are safety issues when flying over a crowd, such as those that were cited among the reasons why the National Park Service banned unmanned aircraft from flying over America’s national parks. But safety concerns were likely not the reason a New Jersey man shot down a drone; it’s was likely about privacy.

“Get that f***ing drone off our property,” a neighbor shouted at the dude flying the DJ Phantom Vision 2 quadcopter. Then “boom, boom, boom” barked the neighbor’s shotgun in the direction of the little drone. Motherboard reported that the pilot called the police and the neighbor was arrested and then “charged with possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and criminal mischief.”

More than anything else about this latest “drone” episode, the comments that are blowing up on Reddit really caught my attention.

Enthusiasts point out that “drone” is a buzzword which has demonized UAVs. The terms UAV, RC airplane/helicopter, “toy aircraft” and quadcopter are used less frequently in headlines. That might be for some of the same reasons “hacker” is used in headlines as opposed to differentiating between ethical, cracker, griefer, penetration tester…folks not into security don’t know and don’t care about the difference; there’s a use of space issue as well since headlines can only be so many characters long. Even using “attacker” doesn’t always work because those folks casually interested in security seem to respond better to “hacker,” meaning they grasp the general gist of what the article will describe.

For those reasons, it’s unlikely using the term “drone” in headlines will go away any time soon. Even the article describing the shot-down drone and how the “technology is vilified and misunderstood by the media” uses “drone” in two different stories about the case.

There’s a huge debate surrounding whether flying a drone over, or close to, a person’s yard would violate that person’s expectation of privacy. While I don’t believe most folks would opt for whipping out a gun and shooting down a drone flying over the edge of their property, surely most folks would tend not to like it. To illustrate this, I walked around my block and stopped to ask all the neighbors that I saw. None of them would appreciate a quadcopter equipped with a camera flying anywhere close to their yards.

The drone pilot said he didn’t fly over the neighbor’s yard and Motherboard published a few photos to show the house that was being filmed and the location of the neighbor’s house.

If you are not a “drone” hobbyist, it’s likely that you don’t know for certain the level of detail the camera can capture. That might lead to feeling like the drone was invading your privacy. Similar drones were recently used during search and rescue; the woman for whom three drones were searching was missing for a month. The captured details may not be super clear, but they are clear enough to be used to find a body.

Regarding the degree of detail, enthusiasts point out that it’s not like a quadcopter is equipped with a telephoto lens. In trying to show the lack of detail, the pilot magnified and zoomed in to show “the shooter and the woman he was with.” It’s pixelated enough that no one could describe those people for a crime sketch, but if that wasn’t even taken over the neighbor’s property, then it’s not so hard to disagree with what Reddit commentor “porkly1 wrote:”

The drone guy states that you cannot see any details of the people on the ground, then the next photo shows details of the people on the ground. Drones are great, but there has to be some reasonable standards of use and image rights when a drone (is) hovering over someone’s house.

Many people suggested that the best compromise would be to go door-to-door to let neighbors know that the drone pilot would be flying over their property. From my little neighborhood experiment to find out if people would feel like their privacy was invaded, alerting all neighbors could turn into a time-consuming endeavor during which “surveillance” is sure to come up.

Unless you want to be arrested, it’s probably extremely unwise to shoot down a hobbyist’s drone flying in the vicinity of your yard. But would you be cool with it if a drone taking photos or filming footage flew over the edge of your property, or would you feel like your privacy was invaded?

I’ll leave you with what I do like about drones…amazing footage. It might not have been “safe” to do this, but a drone flying through fireworks gives us a perspective we’d normally never have.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.