We already know that drones, because of their small sizes and versatility, can go where would be impossible for humans to go. They can also be fitted with various types of equipment to carry out different purposes, like cameras for reconnaissance work.
Naturally, this has led to privacy concerns among the public. Can drones be used to spy on the public? More specifically, can they be used to eavesdrop on private conversations?
Can Drones Hear Conversations?
As modern technology indicates, drones are technically very capable of listening in on conversations — given the right equipment.
According to a 2013 congressional report on the state of drone technology and the implications on privacy concerns, drones could well be equipped to eavesdrop on people.
All this would require is integrating the drones into a system that includes a digital network, ground control personnel, high-powered cameras, infrared devices for sensing objects through walls, and laser radars capable of seeing through trees and foliage.
All these capabilities are readily available to those who know what they are doing and are motivated enough to carry it out.
For example, there are drone models designed for the US military that weigh less than an AA battery and resemble live hummingbirds. They can hover, climb, fly through open doorways, and relay real-time video to the ground control. All this is according to details revealed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
American law enforcement also has access to drone models like the Draganflyer X4-ES which is all of 24 inches wide. They also have the AeroVironment Wasp which has been described as bird-sized in tabloids such as the Washington Post. There have already been documented instances where the AeroVironment Wasp has been used to carryout surveillance to further police operations.
The internet also makes it super easy to upload live video images which are captured by a drone. All this would require is an additional set of equipment strapped to the drone.
It’s as easy as it sounds and very cost friendly in this age of live streams and video uploads. Add to that the proliferation of high-resolution cameras and other audiovisual recording gear, and the idea of a drone spying on you no longer seems so far-fetched.
And naturally, these drone capabilities have led to growing fears among the public about drones infringing on the rights to privacy.
Is It Legal for Someone to Spy with a Drone?
The truth is that drones have the capabilities to collect a ton of sensitive information — and this does not end at the point where you are stepping in or out of the bathroom.
Prevailing technology like facial recognition and automated license plate readers can easily be attached to a drone and used to collect super-sensitive information. And the person being spied on would be none the wiser.
So what do legislators think about this?
Are there any laws that adequately protect civilians from what could potentially be a threat to their privacy?
The short answer to that is yes — obviously! And thankfully.
But the longer and more nuanced answer to that question comes with a few buts.
First things first, there are currently laws that protect individuals against people stalking or spying on them in their homes or areas where they can reasonably expect some privacy.
But, there are no laws in place that would protect individuals from being spied on specifically by an unmanned aerial vehicle.
And that would be a concern if you even realized that you were being targeted by a drone, which can be avoided by the pilot.
Unless someone was specifically looking out for them, (and even then in some cases it would require specialist knowledge), a drone is capable of flying far overhead without being noticed.
In addition to that, the most common function of drones today is aerial photography and videography for capturing images.
So, drones are very well equipped to provide a safe spot for prying eyes in any environment.
And this has raised some concerns among legislators.
For example, Senator Ed Markey, in the US, has been pushing for broader legislations that cover more scenarios than when an individual is within the confines of their house.
Coined the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, these legislations contain clauses that could protect individuals or groups of individuals who are specifically being spied on by drone users.
In 2017, when the legislation was first introduced, Senator Markey asked, “What happens if there are drones that are gathering information on who is shopping on Main Street, through facial recognition, and selling that to advertisers? [paraphrased]”
The bill seeks to improve protection against a wide range of scenarios like:
What could be done if a drone happens to be taking a picture of every license plate number at a health clinic? Information like that could be sold to interested parties like insurance companies if they know exactly the sort of disease being treated at that clinic.
How should instances where individuals have their compounds photographed from up above, without their consent, be handled?
And these are just a few instances where the law does not currently cover individuals from inappropriate drone use.
As drones and their capabilities evolve, legislators have it all to do to keep up without infringing on the individual rights of drone pilots to fly their devices.
And some steps have been taken.
In response to the points raised by Senator Markey’s concerns, officials at the office of Unmanned Aircrafts at the FAA highlighted the efforts of the drone advisory committee.
The Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) was established in 2016 and operated as an advisory body to the FAA. Most of the members were representatives from the drone industry and other aviation stakeholders.
Their duties included providing an open avenue for the FAA and aviation stakeholders to create a safe introduction of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.
But DAC was more concerned with outlining how best to facilitate the resolution of issues affecting efficiency and safety as the drones joined the national airspace. Not privacy per se.
There have also been efforts from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is an agency that advises the US president on tech issues.
In 2016, they released a set of best practices and guidelines for respecting people’s privacy when flying a drone. And these guidelines include common sense practices like notifying people when a drone is collecting potentially sensitive data and being upfront about how said data will be used.
But none of these guidelines are binding.
They remain voluntary, completely left to the discretion of the drone pilot.
And that pretty much sums up the state of the restrictions binding in pilots as far as drone privacy is concerned.
Passing regulations pertaining to privacy remains a minefield which regulators are wary of crossing.
Among the experts called to provide testimony at the Senate hearing to debate the Drone Privacy and Aircraft Transparency Act was John Villasenor, a professor of engineering and public policy at the University of California.
According to him the existing privacy laws are adequate.
Villasenor said in his testimony, “I think it is premature to enact broad new federal legislation specifically directed to unmanned aircraft privacy”.
He warned that new drone privacy laws could accidentally violate the First Amendment rights of drone pilots who operate responsibly. He also said that there exists little evidence to prove that existing federal privacy laws had failed with respect to drones.
As a drone pilot, wanting to enjoy their drone responsibly, you could adhere to common sense suggestions like those of the NTIA.
You are far less likely to offend someone than you would be otherwise.
How Might the Technology Progress?
The innovation that led to the rise of drones in the public space continues to power it till this day. You can expect that their surveillance and eavesdropping capabilities will continue to evolve.
Some innovations to expect in the near future include:
Beyond Vision Line of Sight (BVLOS) Capabilities
Today, drone pilots are mandated to operate their drones only within their line of sight. They must be able to see their drones in the air without assisted vision.
BVLOS could change all that by allowing drone pilots to be in one place while their drones operate in another location. As autonomous operations improve and become more sophisticated, operations like this will become possible.
This would enhance capabilities for the security and surveillance industries, which is a good thing. But it would also make it much easier for spies to stay out of sight.
So far, drones work on a node-to-node basis — that is one pilot per drone. But Mesh networks are being developed that could change all that by allowing drones to connect with a control center and each other. This would allow one pilot to have access to a network of drones at once.
In unscrupulous hands, technology like this could allow one person to spy on multiple places at once.
At the moment, drones can be characterized as flying cameras. They capture images and then relay this to the control center for analysis.
However, going forward you can expect drones with increased computing power that are capable of analyzing the data they collect in real time. It’s likely that these are already available — just not to the public.
As computer vision and neural network technologies merge, you will see more drones capable of gathering information and acting on it independently.
Independently, these innovations increase the tools at the disposal of irresponsible drone users. But they become even more terrifying when looked at together.
Together, they could culminate in the establishment of swarm technology. Imagine a scenario where one pilot is able to control a network of drones communicating with each other while operating independently.
As drone technology progresses, expect more urgent calls for privacy legislation.
How to Prevent Drones Spying on You
So, you hear a strange noise outside your window one day and upon investigating you discover that you have a drone hovering beside your house.
What do you do?
Do a Quick Search on What Local Laws Say
Many local authorities have gone ahead to establish what they consider responsible behavior from drone pilots. Some of these laws have to do with privacy.
Do some research on what the laws are in your locality and see whether they apply to the situation you are in. Find out what your rights are and what is not allowed.
If you find that there are no specific laws in your region that apply to your privacy situation, you need not worry. There are other things that you can try.
Make Sure that You Are Actually Being Spied On
Sometimes it is not easy to tell what a drone is doing. After all, they are faceless devices. Just because a drone is hovering around you does not mean that it is spying on you.
This is especially true if the drone happens to be flying high over your location. At those heights you simply can’t tell what it is filming. It might not even be filming at all.
However, if an unmanned aerial device is hovering inches from your bedroom window, you can be pretty certain about something unbecoming going on.
Don’t Shoot the Drone Down
There have been cases of people shooting down drones which they suspected of foul play. And this option may be tempting to you. However, shooting down drones is considered illegal and can get you in trouble with the authorities.
Some areas might not even allow the discharging of a fire arm in urban settings except for very specific (as in officially outlined) reasons. Other areas might require you to foot the bill for the drone you shot down.
There are a few anti-drone devices that have hit the market in recent times, including firing out a net and radio jamming equipment. These are meant to force the device into an emergency landing so you can catch it.
But in many areas these devices are forbidden to be used by civilians.
The FAA, for example, prohibits the use of radio-jamming equipment by civilians to down drones, and using them could land you in serious hot water.
You are better off not taking the law into your own hands.
Film or Photograph the Suspected Drone
If you realize a drone is spying on you or taking unauthorized footage or pictures, you should film it right back. Use your smartphone, if you can.
There are a few reasons why this is a good idea:
First of all, it could reveal a government registration number which could easily be traced back to the owner.
Secondly, it will help you confirm the make and model of the aircraft.
And last of all, it will provide evidence that the drone was indeed spying, which would help your case with the authorities.
Follow the Drone
If the drone pilot is adhering to drone laws, then the drone is probably within their direct line of sight. So you might be able to spot them by following the drone. Look out for the individual with a controller in hand.
You don’t necessarily have to confront them. But you can take a picture or a car plate number which could prove useful when you lay a complaint before the authorities.
Even if you can’t find a pilot at once, lay in wait for when the drone has to land — which should be in less than 30 minutes usually, due to short battery lives. You can follow the drone to its landing spot when it makes its way back, as it must.
Keep Your Blinds Drawn
Nobody likes turning their homes into a prison; especially when this is the fault of a foreign actor. That said, you could close you window blinds if you don’t absolutely need them open while you suspect you are being spied upon. This has worked against peeping toms equipped with telescopes and binoculars, and it should work against drones as well.
Blind the Drone
The main threat of a drone lies with its high-resolution camera. Just like the human eye, this camera is sensitive to light. This means you could effectively blind it by pointing a powerful flashlight directly at it, assuming it’s dark. OK, this is maybe a little far fetched, although it is technically possible.
You could also disable the camera with a laser pointer. However, laser pointers are illegal in some countries and using one is probably too tricky to be worth the effort. But keep one handy if all else fails.
The Future of Drone Privacy
Drones laws and regulations will keep on being a work in progress as the technology evolves. As far as privacy is concerned, a long way remains ahead before we arrive at a system that works for all parties involved.
You can be sure that at some point laws will be put in place to deal with the issue. But until that time, the public will just have to be patient with the drone laws that are in place, while drone pilots endeavor to operate responsibly.
Drone pilots can always rely on common sense and courtesy to avoid leaving negative sentiments in their wake as they fly their devices.
To answer the question from the very beginning once more: yes, drones can spy on you. They could hear your conversations if fitted with the right equipment. However, it would be illegal for anyone to do either of these things.