Hobby drones: illegal invasion of privacy?

Feb 21, 2013 29 Comments by
A Texas state representative has recently sponsored a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to take photos with an unmanned aircraft without the permission of the property owner. This excerpt from a PopSci.com article by Rebecca Boyle is an interesting read. What do you think about the legality — or illegality — of RC aircraft equipped with cameras?
On a hazy day last January, an unmanned aircraft enthusiast piloted his camera-equipped drone in the vicinity of a Dallas meatpacking plant, cruising around 400 feet in the air. To test his equipment, he took some photos of the Trinity River with a point-and-shoot camera mounted to his $75 foam airframe. When he retrieved the remote-controlled aircraft, he noticed something odd in the photos: A crimson stream, which appeared to be blood, leaking into a river tributary.

The pilot, whose name has not been released, notified Texas environmental authorities, who launched an investigation. On Dec. 26, a grand jury handed down several indictments against the owners of the Columbia Packing Company for dumping pig blood into a creek. They now face hefty fines and even prison time stemming from the water pollution, and the plant has since been shuttered.

Under a new law proposed in the Texas legislature, sponsored by a lawmaker from the Dallas suburbs, this type of activity could soon be criminal. Not the pollution–the drone. Texas House Bill 912–and similar laws under debate right now in Oregon and elsewhere–are driving a burgeoning debate about how to use and control unmanned air systems, from an AR.Drone to a quadcopter. The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of drafting new rules governing unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace, including military-style aircraft. But in the meantime, plenty of cheap, easy-to-use aircraft are already popular among hobbyists and, increasingly, activists and law enforcement.

Texas state Rep. Lance Gooden, a Republican, is the sponsor of the latest bill. It’s unique because it criminalizes taking any data–photos, sound, temperature, even odor–of private property using an unmanned aircraft without the permission of the property owner.

Gooden said he doesn’t want to limit beneficial drone uses, from law enforcement pursuing criminal suspects to power companies checking downed lines. “But under no circumstances, ever, should people lose their right to privacy just because people want to take pictures,” he said.

While the FAA and state lawmakers continue to tackle the problem, drone operators and private landowners seem to have reached at least one possible solution. About two weeks after the bloody river discovery, an animal rights group flew a microdrone above private property in South Carolina, aiming to film what they said was a live pigeon shoot. The shoot never took place, but a low-caliber gunshot did take down the drone.

Humphrey said that’s a “Texas solution.”

“I say go ahead and fly drones over private property, and those who own it are legally entitled, if they wish, to try to shoot down your drone,” he said, only half kidding. “Let the market decide.”

To read the full story on PopSci.com, click here.

Debra Cleghorn, Featured News

About the author

Executive editor About me: I’m a publishing professional who has a passion for aviation and RC, and I love creating issues, books and a website that help RC pilots to enjoy this sport even more. I admire scale aircraft and enjoy the convenience of flying smaller electrics.

29 Responses to “Hobby drones: illegal invasion of privacy?”

  1. Richard says:

    Amazing……so what Teas is saying is that it’s okay to leak blood in a river, but don’t take pictures of it from a drone. While I agree that there is privacy issues, I don’t think most modelers engage in this type of activity. At least I hope not…………

  2. Glen says:

    That’s an ethical dilemma. On one hand, I see no problem with it, on the other hand, I can see someone abusing it, and causing problems for all of us.

  3. Steve C says:

    this is pretty stupid, (not the article ,its good) but the issue. What is he hiding? How many “drone a day does he see in his backyard? it sounds like a personal fear. What is the difference if people walk and film and take picture or they mount it on something to do it for them? Isn’t the roll of thumb is no selling or posting private images with out permission? Now if you are going over to your newly wed neighbors house and filming there activities and selling them on the internet, that i agree should be illegal, but everyday life on film is nothing. Most people that do fly photography and FPV (myself included) do not go and post all the video feeds and pictures taken , they are reviewed and normally deleted. Scenery and public events are about the best thing to film or photograph. Simply put there are cameras everywhere already and if the drone operator decides to post a funny or epic video/ picture of an individual or there personal property they should ask for permission out of courtesy. But really most of this is done for a fun hobby.

  4. Tut says:

    I say we go after Google Earth.

  5. Vinnie says:

    Each case(if there is a case) should be handled on an individual basis. Cameras are everywhere today and if the situation prevents a serious crime or illegal activity, all the better. Uav’s should never be used to infringe on someone’s privacy.
    Our own Government is already doing that so we don’t really need to get involved in that arena.
    I just think it’s another area of our sport that we can indulge in without doing any harm.
    Our senators and congressmen would be better equipped to get together with the pres and square away our economy instead of the ridiculous paranoia about who’s taking pictures.
    P.S. Does anyone you know like “Pig Blood” in their water ?? Or is it more about “Pork Bellies” ?

  6. David Christian says:

    So it ok for Google Earth to show photos of your property, but we are suddenly a threat? Dosen’t make any sense. How do we keep electing these people?

  7. Bubba says:

    I can see having concerns about the invasion of privacy, when one sees the problems with the “paparazzi” and some “celebrities.” Should people have constantly “keep an eye on the sky” if they wish to sunbathe, etc while on their own property, with an expectation of privacy? However, if this proposed “law” is brought into being, is “G*ggle Earth” to become illegal, unless each and every property owner gives their permission to have images of their property published? What about satellites? Can a “property owner” attempt to shoot down satellites which are taking video/digital footage of his/her private property?
    I think there will be law suites, and I think SOME UAV pilots, will face legal sanctions, for abuse of their equipment, and violation of others privacy. These will be in the minority, I am sure

  8. Chad Vader says:

    Well, you sure know who runs Texas.

  9. Gregg says:

    To all lawmakers- You don’t want me looking into you backyard? Then why did you allow me to build a 2 story house. From my second floor I can see no less than 6 backyards quite clearly and my cell phone takes great pictures. Or ever looked at Google maps of your property?. Don’t want me to take pictures of your front yard? Ever seen Google’s street view or ever seen the YouTube of the kid skateboarding down your street with a GoPro on his head?

    Seriously, cameras are everywhere and isn’t most of what your attempting to protect already covered under other laws that are scarcely enforced? This is busy work for lawmakers without the backbone to tackle real problems.

  10. Bob King says:

    This is just another case of big money trying to control illegal activity by passing a law. It is obviously apparent That Lance Gooden should be replaced in the next election in Texas. His motive is clear and he is being paid off by the meat packing industry. The air is free and what you see accidently from it is legal. It is the same thing as if you were walking down a sidewalk and see a crime. It’s legal to report that. If the intent was not to snoop into private area’s that are legal; what is the difference between someone using field glasses on a hillside and sees that same event unfold.

  11. Bob says:

    I think the same rules should apply that the FCC uses for shortwave listening or a scanner. You can listen but conversations are private and you can not divulge them. The same thing should apply to pictures from a UAV. You can always get the landowners permission to show them. This should be adhered to if people are in the picture. What about Google Earth? I have looked at my house and the clubs flying field when I was trying to find a lost plane. Of course this does not address the fact that you are flying over private property with out the owners permission.

  12. Len Todd says:

    Let’s fix this big ugly problem FPV is causing by just outlawing all cameras and be done with it! That would fix a lot of other problems too. I agree that land owners are entitled to a reasonable degree of privacy. But, camera and plane owners are also entitled to reasonable use. Finding that balance as to what is reasonable to both may be an issue for a while. Consequently, the FPV users need to use some common sense to avoid creating unnecessary issues. The Pig Blood issue seems reasonable. Watching your neighbor’s activities does not. Also, shooting down a plane, RC or otherwise, is/should be against the law. Shooting into the air is just plane dangerous. :-) (pun intended)

  13. Walker says:

    Unfortunately technology has far outpaced our current laws and our legislature. I expect my privacy to maintained as much as is practically possible. If that means a law like this I can live with that. I do however have an issue with there being 2 sets of rules where I am prevented from something but it is deemed ok or even necessary for local law enforcement or a government agency to has a pass. The police around here seem to work for everyone but me and routinely find themselves in the news for abusing their power. These things need to be looked at carefully to avoid privacy and rights issues and government seems to be behind the curve with this as they are with so many other things.

  14. Dusty says:

    It is easy to talk about “shooting down” a drone with a gun. Even the people in the law and legislatures seem to like to talk like that. Anyone who is serious about the shooting sports knows that in most places where there is any significant population density there are regulations forbidding “discharge” of a firearm. Beyond that, if the projectile (bullet) goes outside the property boundaries of the shooter, the shooter is liable for any and all damage plus can be charged for “Public Endangerment” all the way up to possible voluntary and involuntary criminal assault and even attempted murder. Depending on the local or Federal enforcement officials, it can get real serious real quick.

    Beyond that, airspace above FAA minimums would seem to be open to the user. 500 feet in open country, 1000 feet or 2000 feet (depending) AGL over populated areas? Not to even begin to discuss air vehicles in FAA controlled airspace!

    Hitting a moving flying object is mostly luck, too. Large R/C (drone?) models were used by the Army for training troops to hit low-flying aircraft for decades. One guy I knew who took care of the little planes said in his entire tour of service there was one (non-critical) hole made in one drone. From tens of thousands of shots fired. Or the U-Tube video showing a couple of guys on private property and in a careful set-up trying to shoot down an R/C airplane deliberately flown close in, low and slow for many passes through the shooting lanes. Several hundred rounds and there was finally a hit from the semi-auto rifles. It was noted that there was a clear 2 miles of down-range property with a tall, steep hill out there inside the fence to catch the bullets.

    If it is going to be unlawful for anyone to take pictures from a private UAV, then it needs be unlawful to take pictures of any other kind in public places also. Arrest everyone who is in possession of a cell phone with a camera in it? Anyone with any other kind of camera who does not have a permit specifying where and when and what may be photographed? Is Google ‘Street View’ a criminal operation? Or the other satellite and airborne pics provided many places? How about real estate photos done for insurance companies? I never knowingly or willingly gave my permission for those. Obviously this can quickly become not a bucket of worms but a whole bunch of 55-gallon drums full of worms!

  15. ALRUI says:

    Of course the politicians want to ban our “toys” from catching a polluter as in this case – the guy probably lost a good source of kickbacks, etc! I trust my neighbors flying their RC “toys” much more then our corrupt government spying on us with their “toys”!

  16. Daniel Rodewald says:

    Im barely 30 years old and I live in Montana “the last best place” and Im tired of hearing all these lawyers and politicians (mostly city folks) complain about silly nonsensical ideas… A few years ago when the urban populations outgrew the rural populations I felt a sense of impending doom (briefly).

    Please people, every one needs to relax, calm down, quit whining all the dang time and fix your own stinking problems before you think your so smart your gonna pass laws on everyone else…. Laws are good, but don’t we have enough. For every law we add, we take away that much freedom. It’s not a hard concept.

    Lets go back to the basics; don’t lie, don’t steel, don’t cheat, don’t murder, work hard and smart, and take care of YOURSELF. Love your family, they’re the only ones you got. Eat your daily servings of fruit and vegetables, exercise 30 minutes a day for most days (4) of the week. Life is not that hard. And yet most of us can’t consistently get even the basics accomplished….

  17. Ron says:

    I think Mr. Gooden just cost himself a job from the RC voting community. Shouldn’t he have more important things to address with his time than that with his high paying job of being the state rep.? Here is one more reason the political pundits are laughed at today.

  18. Dave Vinch says:

    The intent is the key. A hobbiest flying over a neighbors privacy fenced yard taking video of a person sunbathing is a clear invasion of privacy and should be treated the same as peeping.

    Illegality would have to apply for any area clearly marked as private and no trespassing. By videoing you would be gaining unlawful access to an area that the owner has stated is off limits.

  19. Kevin says:

    Hey, did anyone see my drone which looks exactly like an eagle? No I didn’t think so.

  20. Ed Hilland says:

    I would think if you can take pictures of someone’s property from the ground you could take pics from the air? Also what about Google Earth, or any other satellite images that are available from other programs on the internet. If you take a picture of someone in the grocery market is that an invasion? We need to stifle the efforts of lawyers and the ACLU.
    Ed Hilland Westville,NJ

    • Garry says:

      I’m tired of the double standard. If the government can do it, we should be able to do it. Law enforcement needs drones like like pigs need wings. (no pun intended) The airspace belongs to US, not the overzealous incompetent government.
      What makes anyone think the police will use them responsibly? How tempting will it be for the pilot to take pictures of a bevy of bikini clad women sunbathing? It happens now with their helicopters. What’s to prevent them from doing it with the drones?
      They’re going to loose a lot of them in the learning process and I’ll bet there will close calls with full sized aircraft if not collisions. Who do we sue when one of their drones runs out of batteries or gas and crashes into our car or roof?
      By the way, how do you tell a civilian drone from a military drone before you shoot? Hmmmmm, maybe we should make them illegal and let the gov’t suffer the consequences of mistaken identity?

      RJ

  21. Edward Solis says:

    Right now As I understand the AMA by laws. They-AMA- restrict the use of recording devises on RC planes. This is still about regulating the RC industry. And in Texas. Where I live the feds will charge you if you shoot at an RC plane. Real or toy. They consider it a federal crime.

    • Doug says:

      > They-AMA- restrict the use of recording devises on RC planes

      No, they don’t. They do have some restrictions for FPV operations, however.

      Also note that the AMA has no enforcement power beyond being able to refuse to pay insurance claims for members who don’t follow their rules. They don’t create laws, and their policies only affect their members, and only to the degree that the members let them.

  22. Bob says:

    Okay, if they outlaw the drones then, they also need to remove every security camera covering all portions of the State including the “red light” cameras that are a sore subject with me anyway. In addition, all personal cameras and video equipment needs to be confiscated as well. Our society has evolved to the point where we no longer have any privacy. Taking it a step further, the federal government will have to discontinue all satelite transmissions from such companies as Google with their “Google Earth”. The technology is such now, they can see something as small as an insect from miles away. What’s the difference between the photograph this young man took and someone simply flying overhead taking the same photo with a more powerful lens? I for one am tired of the amount of control our government has over us and what we are allowed to do or not to do. To me, this is just another rediculous attempt to control what will eventually be Big Brother taking over our lives. I realize that sounds extreme but we are definitely headed in that direction.

  23. Glen says:

    If drones, quadcopters and cameras aboard airplanes and helicopters are banned, then satellite photography should be, too. Google Maps should be closed down and only our “big brother” government should be allowed to have secret photos of our backyards.

  24. David Steinhour says:

    Well, as the ever-brilliant Bruce from RCModelReviews (who is way way better than your YouTube channel, but That’s OK, he’s also way way better than mine: ) , It’s the same as putting a camera on a broomstick and poking it up over the fence at your neighbor and watching them. Should we make broomsticks illegal? NO! That’s just silly. And another thing: let’s not call them drones-that word is laced with bad connotation. How about RC Models or FPV Planes or something

  25. Dennis Brandon says:

    Kind of have to agree. If I don,t want someone flying by taking pictures, I can get rid of the problem. Most everyone will NOT have a problem and we as RC enthusiast can continue our enjoyable hobby. Lets keep the law out of this folks.

  26. Bernie says:

    That law maybe a problem, for Google is doing it on Google earth, Microsoft as well as local Police, Cities and towns for bylaw enforcement, Texas Boarder Patrol as well and many more.
    Good luck in trying. That is saying God does not have the right to looks as well
    RC Heli

  27. R Stix says:

    I live in a rural area. My living room windows face a field so I do not have curtains or blinds. My neighbor flies one of these drones/model airplanes, whatever it is over our house, garage, yard almost nightly. Another neighbor told us he video tapes with it. Isn’t it illegal to videotape on your neighbors windows? If so how do I prove it?

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