Drones and Privacy in the United States in 2017

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privacy and dronesDrone use in the United States is a wildly controversial topic. Many people conjure up a 1984-esque image of government planes hovering high in the sky, recording every word and movement made by the more than 300 million people living within America’s borders. Due to privacy concerns, some activists have called on the government to make civilian drone photography illegal except in very limited circumstances. Drone supporters, however, argue that there are numerous legitimate uses for unmanned civilian drones.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, over 700,000 drones will be sold in the United States this year alone. What are the arguments for and against civilian drone use, and what does the government have to say about the topic?

What do privacy advocates have to say about drone use in the United States?

It’s normal for American citizens to expect a reasonable amount of privacy on their own property, and privacy advocates believe that civilian drones grow the risk of privacy invasion exponentially. Drones are both affordable and easy to purchase, and it doesn’t take much practice to learn how to fly a drone with a camera attached.

In recent years, there have been multiple incidents of citizens complaining that they were being “watched” by someone operating a drone above their property. Sometimes, the “peeping tom” has turned out to be nothing more than a land survey company. In at least one instance, however, a man shot a drone from the sky after it was observed to be hovering above his sunbathing daughter for an extended period of time.

Some individuals may be worried about getting caught for crimes committed on their property, while others believe based solely on principal that their right to privacy on their own property should not be violated. Regardless of the reasons each individual has for wanting privacy, the lack of clear and standardized drone privacy laws is glaring.

What are the reasons for civilian drones to be legal in the United States?

No reasonable drone owner believes that the government has no right or reason to regulate civilian drone use to some degree. However, the pro-drone party believes that overregulation could infringe on individuals’ right to “the pursuit of happiness”. Additionally, limiting drone use could have a negative effect on the economy, both in terms of companies that manufacture, sell and repair drones, and companies that use drones to conduct business.

How could new laws affect things like survey companies, movie producers, and companies that want to make drone package delivery a reality? According to many people, there are simply too many questions that need to be studied and answered before laws limiting drone use should be passed.

“I understand that people have a right to privacy in their own homes, and voyeurism is a concern for all of us,” said drone enthusiast Mark Schroeder. “But if you look at the big picture, drones can be used in all sorts of businesses to make our lives easier, and they could even be used to help people during national disasters and for things like Amber Alerts. Are we going to throw all that away? It would be like outlawing all cars because of drunk drivers, so the powers-that-be need to think carefully before they pass more laws just to appease a few folks.”

What does the U.S. federal government, as well as state and local governments, have to say about drones and privacy?

Drone privacy policy in the United States has often been compared to the Wild West. Laws vary from place to place, and they can be extremely hard to enforce. The first law regarding personal airspace above one’s property was passed in 1946, when the Supreme Court ruled that a person’s property extended to 83 feet in the air. The federal government prohibits the unauthorized use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) above airports, national parks, military bases, and federal buildings. As of December 21, 2015 all drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Additionally, civilian drones are required to fly at or below 500 feet and reach speeds of no more than 100 miles per hour. From there, things begin to get a bit cloudy.

The majority of drone privacy laws are managed at the state level. As of May 2016, 29 states have enacted laws regarding civilian UAV use. At least six more states are currently considering new drone laws. Many of the laws relate to interfering with first responders, filming someone without their permission, weaponizing a drone, or filming things like car accident sites or active crime scenes. Penalties range from fines to jail time, but again, it can be extremely difficult to enforce such laws.

Even seasoned drone operators like Aerial Imaging Systems owner Scott Dunn believe that current laws are lacking. “I don’t want this thing flying over my house, taking pictures of me in my back yard. That’s a legitimate concern…that should be addressed,” Dunn said.

Many lawmakers agree that drones and privacy laws related to UAVs are issues to be decided by each individual state. State legislators seem to be divided over exactly how to enact and enforce drone privacy laws, so if you plan to fly a drone it’s highly advisable to do your due diligence when preparing a flight plan in order to protect yourself.


Clearly, the debate about drones and privacy is just beginning. Each new drone owner means another vote for legislation protecting citizens’ right to fly these machines, and every incident involving a drone will be met with calls for strict regulations. The laws surrounding drones and privacy are sure to change drastically over the next few years as lawmakers become forced to confer about the topic. Where do you stand on this issue, and why?

Stewart Lawson

4 thoughts on “Drones and Privacy in the United States in 2017”

  1. My interest in drones is an extension of my interest in photography. I fly to be able to photograph landscapes from a vantage point I could never get to. I will always respect peoples privacy and would never drop down into someones yard.
    Another interest is using thermal imaging on a drone to help find missing people. A drone can cover far more ground faster than a person on foot, and with thermal imaging can find a lost child or adult incredibly quickly. Most drone owners dont want to fly over your backyard, and at an altitude of 200 -300 ft even the best images are not capable of seeing much more than grainy images. Satellite images on the otherhand can see far far more details but unless youre living next to a mobile missile base in Russia them birds aint getting tasked to look at you.

  2. FYI—Your Comment saying:

    “…drones are required to fly at or below 500 feet and reach speeds of no more than 100 miles per hour”.
    the first part seems to be in accurate; the whereas the 400′ ‘Drone Flight rule applies….

    Under the FAA Rule-a Drone has to be 500 ‘ below cloud cover; otherwise the 400′ Rule applies, and also depending on the Restricted Air Space Rule…that is why is good for all Commercial UAS Folks and, even Drone Hobbyists should take a Drone Course to learn all the Aeronautic Rules and Regs!

    Future Educated Drone enthusiasts are more equipped to understand the seriousness of flying…once an object is airborne…it is like any plane launched into the Sky! We all need to learn the rules and have respect for multi-shared airspace! Drones are here to stay and to save Lives too, and Not to take advantage of others’ rights to Privacy!!!

  3. If drone enthusiasts want to keep their sport they had better respect privacy. I am the last one to call for the government to do anything but it will happen if without a little self control.

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