Center for Strategic Communication

<em>Illustration: Robert Samuel Hanson</em>

Illustration: Señor Salme

What are the laws against drones—and their masters—behaving badly? Turns out, there are few that explicitly address a future where people, companies, and police all command tiny aircraft. But many of our anxieties about that future should be assuaged by existing regulations. We asked Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, to weigh in on some of the issues.

Can I use a drone to spy on my sexy neighbor?

Ogle at your own risk, but the fact that you’re spying by plane shouldn’t make a difference. Peeping Tom laws say you can’t view a fully or partially nude person without their knowledge, so long as they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Chances are, if you need a drone to see her, your neighbor is justified in thinking she’s alone.

If you do spy, she can likely sue for “intrusion upon seclusion.” There are limits: The conduct must be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and courts often dismiss cases where the plaintiff can’t show any real harm. Still, if you want to see your neighbor naked, the safest technology remains your imagination.

Can I use a drone to deliver a cup of coffee?

No—at least not yet. The Federal Aviation Administration, policeman to the nation’s skies, prohibits most commercial use of drones. Hobbyists can fly them outside of populated areas, provided the drones stay within sight and below 400 feet. But delivering a product for compensation is not allowed.

The good news for drone (or latté) enthusiasts is that Congress recently required the FAA to reexamine its policy, under a new law that demands a “comprehensive plan” to allow private-sector drones by fall 2015. Still, technical hurdles cast doubt on whether airborne baristas are the most likely application. The smart money is on robotic paparazzi.

Could a police drone look in my windows for drugs?

Maybe. The law generally doesn’t recognize privacy rights regarding anything that cops can spy from a public vantage. Officers in a helicopter can already look into your backyard without a warrant.

That said, the courts often treat the interior of a home as off-limits. For example, the Supreme Court has rejected the use of thermal-imaging devices to search for indoor grow lights (often used in marijuana cultivation), for fear that the officers might discover “intimate details” such as the time when “the lady of the house takes her daily sauna and bath.”

In that case, the court thought it important that thermal imaging was not in “general public use.” But as drones become common, courts may say we should draw our curtains if we want to maintain an expectation of privacy.

Could the police follow my car with a drone?

Yes, but if it follows you long enough, the police might need a warrant. Generally speaking, officers can follow a vehicle without getting the courts involved—for instance, by driving behind it. But in a recent Supreme Court case, on whether officers need a warrant to affix a GPS device to a car for a month, a majority of justices expressed concern about the length of time. Ultimately, the Court decided the case on a different ground, holding that a warrant was required to attach any object to a car. But police drones might prompt them to revisit just how much public surveillance is too much.