Why Drones Should Bug You


We used to say good fences make good neighbors. Not if your neighborhood hobbyist has bought into the latest and greatest craze: sophisticated, remote-controlled, video camera-laden drones.

In case you’ve never actually seen one of these fabulous flying machines up close and personal, don’t worry, you will. Half a million personal drones have already been sold in the United States, according to some estimates.

Unmanned (and unwomanned) aircraft have long been used in a host of high altitude defense and commercial applications from reconnaissance and search and rescue to filmmaking and scientific research. But low altitude use is another story.

While advances in wireless, navigation and video technology enable all sorts of cool applications, drones present a hornet’s nest of privacy, security and safety concerns that just may outweigh the commercial benefits. And that should bug you.

Last week, U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and John Hoeven (R-ND) introduced a bill to accelerate commercial use of drones. I’m sure Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) are excited about that for home delivery services, but I’m not ecstatic about these related headlines, also from last week:

- State and local officials all over the nation are clashing with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over the question of who owns the airspace over your home, you or the feds? What, really, are your privacy rights when the camera’s above ground?

- The FAA is investigating a near collision between a drone and a news chopper that was covering a massive fire in Pittsburgh. That’s just the latest of dozens of reported near-crashes between private drones and commercial aircraft.

- Meanwhile, a man was arrested by the Secret Service for flying one too close to a big “white house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., of all places. And yes, drones can carry a payload.

Let me just say for the record that I’m cool with drone use for defense, reconnaissance and the like. And if some rich dude wants to pay Amazon a fortune to deliver a case of Dom Perignon pronto so his party doesn’t fizzle out, I’ve got no beef with that either.

But if neighbor P. Ping Tom down the street decides to send one snooping around my property, that’s a whole different story. The same goes for the fourth estate, the men in blue and the men in black, for that matter. That’s where I draw the line.

I bet some staunch proponents of the Second Amendment might be inclined to draw more than just a line – perhaps something that shoots little pieces of lead at very high speeds – against those flying prying robots.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those privacy nuts who thinks Edward Snowden was the second coming and the NSA is spying on all of us. Although it does sort of freak me out when the red light above my Mac’s screen comes on and the keyboard starts typing by itself. I’m sure it’s just a poltergeist or something.

In fact, I often quote former Sun CEO Scott McNealy who famously said, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” You’ve got to admit, it’s ironic the way folks are so uptight about privacy while revealing every intimate detail of their lives on Facebook, not to mention intimate details of their bodies on selfies. 

We actually have plenty of laws on the books governing privacy in our homes. But if you’re out in the backyard and a peeping drone happens to peer over your privacy fence, that’s sort of a gray area. I don’t know about you but I don’t want anyone surveilling my family or property for any reason. That goes beyond creepy. It’s downright Orwellian.

Air travel safety may present an even bigger concern than privacy. The FAA recorded 25 instances of near collisions between small drones and large aircraft over a six-month period in 2014, according to The Washington Post. Not to be an alarmist, but if the FAA doesn’t get out in front of this craze, it’s only a matter of time before something tragic happens.

Look, I don’t usually call for more government, but this is one of those rare cases where we actually need federal regulators to clarify and enforce low altitude aircraft rules. We also need to ensure there are no legal or legislative loopholes that allow spying eyes in our private lives.

I guess you can look at the bright side: If your robot dog gets lost chasing a self-driving car, you can always send your drone out to find it. The marvels of technology.