Skip to main content

Bad laws would hurt good drones

By Ryan Calo, Special to CNN
updated 7:18 PM EST, Tue March 5, 2013
Todd Jacobs of NOAA uses a drone to survey seals and sea lions in California's Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
Todd Jacobs of NOAA uses a drone to survey seals and sea lions in California's Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ryan Calo: Like pilot's claim, we are going to hear more reports of drones in U.S. skies
  • People are fearful of drones because they are used in war and surveillance, he says
  • Calo: Privacy law doesn't cover most uses of drones, so many want to change laws
  • He says potential creative uses of drones are endless and bad laws could prevent them

Editor's note: Ryan Calo is a law professor at the University of Washington School of Law and an affiliate scholar at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society. You can follow him on Twitter @rcalo.

(CNN) -- An Alitalia passenger jet pilot said he saw a drone over Brooklyn on Monday. Whether it's true or not -- the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating -- we are going to be hearing more and more about drones in American skies.

I predicted two things about drones in an online essay for Stanford Law Review in December 2011. Those predictions turned out to be true. But there was something I didn't see coming.

My first prediction was that drones would trouble the public more than other contemporary surveillance technologies, in part because of their association with war. Events of the last year have borne this prediction out. Opposition to the domestic use of drones has spread steadily across the United States. Members of each house of Congress and each major party have raised questions about, or even proposed bills to limit, the use of drones for surveillance here at home.

Ryan Calo
Ryan Calo

The FAA recently solicited comments on the privacy issues drones raise. The agency has granted 1,428 drone licenses so far, saying that typical purposes for the unmanned vehicles include "law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, military training, and other government operational missions."

The second prediction was that our collective, visceral reaction to drones would force a national conversation about the adequacy of privacy law. The jury is still out on whether we will seriously re-examine privacy law.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



For instance, in American law today there is next to no reasonable expectation of privacy in public. If there were, Google Maps would not be able to post its Street View. A police drone could likely hover over your backyard and record video without triggering constitutional scrutiny.

Last year, the Supreme Court confronted the question of whether police following someone around continuously for a month using a GPS device required probable cause.

Five of the nine justices worried aloud about continuous electronic surveillance, but ultimately the court found against the police officers, on the basis that they had triggered the Fourth Amendment through the act of physically attaching the GPS device to the suspect's car -- something drone surveillance does not require.

A 'thought war' over drones
Domestic drones in U.S. skies
Buyers: Drones are here to stay

There is also little expectation of privacy in illegal possessions or activities. Thus, a dog may sniff your bag at the airport (and elsewhere) without implicating the Constitution, on the theory that the dog only alerts in the presence of contraband. No officer need see the contents of your bag unless you have something you shouldn't.

Drones, meanwhile, can be equipped with a variety of sensors that serve the same function. The very next generation of drones may be able to detect grow lamps, guns, or marijuana and, again, report back only what is already illegal. This year, the Supreme Court is set to decide whether a dog -- and, presumably, a drone -- could sniff even your house without a warrant. The court could take the opportunity either to limit or to seriously extend the contraband exception.

In short, I looked up at the sky and saw the storm brewing. One thing I did not predict, however, was the danger to the drones themselves.

The city of Seattle, where I live, just ended its modest drone program over citizen protests, even though the drones could only stay up in the air for 15 minutes and were intended to support emergency response. The city of Charlottesville, Virginia, issued a moratorium on the use of drones within city limits. And this is nothing compared with what may happen in 2015 when the FAA paves the way for the use of drones by private parties.

I do not blame opponents of drones. They raise legitimate concerns that have gone largely unaddressed. The FAA and others should have taken privacy seriously from the beginning. But I do worry that we are missing out on the transformative potential of drones.

What are drones but flying smartphones, one app away from indispensable? We could see drones accompanying early morning joggers, taking sport, wildlife, and other photography to a new level, or mapping out hard-to-reach geographic terrain. The possibilities, as Vivek Wadhwa recently wrote, are endless.

Which is why I would rather see an end to bad privacy law than an end to drones.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Ryan Calo.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT