How would it make you feel if a drone flew over your house while you were sunbathing by the pool, hanging out with your children, or just watering the plants? Your answer would probably depend on who was flying the drone and for what purpose. But in general, if you are like everyone else, you probably have some privacy concerns. Unmanned aircraft systems are quickly becoming ubiquitous. The public wants to know how this will affect privacy and what the legal limitations are for drones.
Federal Aviation Administration regulations do not specifically address flight over residential areas, says Dr. Ryan Wallace, assistant professor of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU). “So long as the UAS operator is compliant with operational restrictions, there are no federal restrictions regarding overflight of residential areas. Furthermore, anecdotal information would suggest that the vast majority of UAS violators are not caught.” To many members of the public, this sounds like a Wild West free for all. Many of them view themselves as potential victims of privacy violations.
A few years ago, a group of researchers, including Dr. Scott Winter, who is now an assistant professor in the College of Aviation at ERAU, started looking into public perceptions of drones and privacy. “First, we wanted to create a valid and reliable scale that measured public concerns about privacy due to drone usage,” Dr. Winter explained. “And then we used that scale to measure a bunch of different potential scenarios.”
The group’s first study examined public privacy concerns related to the use of drones by police. The benefits of using drones rather than traditional helicopters for police purposes are obvious. Drones are cheap. They are accessible to many users. They can blanket an entire city. And they are much quieter than helicopters. As someone who spent some time living in Los Angeles, I can testify to the racket that nighttime helicopter flyovers make.
Data from the study revealed several interesting trends. First, while participants seemed to understand the need for police drones, they wanted to make sure that the technology was being well regulated. Privacy concerns were much lower when the police indicated that they would only use the drones for specific missions and not on a continuous basis. In other words, if the police were simply responding to an event, then that was okay. Flying drones 24/7 over their neighborhoods was not okay. The research showed that the latter scenario generates fear of the police.
A follow-up study with 1,047 participants examined public privacy concerns as a function of who was flying the drone. Participants indicated that they were less concerned about hobbyists, construction and real estate companies, and more concerned about drones owned by the government, military or law enforcement. Unmarked drones generated the most privacy concerns. Despite differences between the drone owners, none of the entities were given a free pass; members of the public are not particularly in favor of any drones flying over their homes or land.
Gender plays a role in privacy concerns as well. On average, females have more privacy concerns about drones, compared to males. Fear of being videotaped was the most common reason for their concerns.
A recent study of about 400 online participants, conducted at ERAU, examined what type of person would have privacy concerns about police drones. Participants were presented with hypothetical scenarios involving police-issued drones patrolling near their residence. Of the two-dozen factors that could be possible predictors of privacy concerns, seven were found to be statistically significant. The predictors related to study participants’ responses to questions about 1) the general importance of privacy, 2) their general attitudes towards drones, 3) their perceptions of whether police in general are corrupt, 4) their feeling of safety in the neighborhood, 5) the number of children in their family, 6) their ethnicity, and 7) their general support for police activity in the neighborhood.
“Not in My Backyard” Findings
Another study conducted by the same team found that public support for police drones depends on the political affiliation of the participant and neighborhood demographics. Some 710 people were provided with hypothetical scenarios about police using drones over neighborhoods with varying racial compositions, including neighborhoods that were predominantly Caucasian, Hispanic, or African-American. Participants were also asked for their own political affiliations and were categorized as either liberals, libertarians, conservatives, or authoritarians. Emily Anania, lead author and PhD student at ERAU, states that, “When considering political affiliation and support for drone usage by law enforcement, liberals show less support, and more concern over privacy infringement than conservatives.” In addition, support for police drone missions goes up when the police are investigating someone else’s neighborhood, particularly when that neighborhood is comprised of a different ethnicity.
Political affiliation seems to have a very strong effect on support for police drones. In a follow-up study, the researchers tapped into 973 participants’ opinions about police drones flying over large gatherings. The type of gathering was experimentally manipulated to be either a typically liberal protest (e.g. labor or environmental cause) or a typically conservative rally (e.g. anti-abortion or nationalism cause). Perhaps not surprisingly, conservatives were more supportive of the police drones over a liberal protest, while liberals were more supportive of the drones over a conservative rally. In other words, they want the police to monitor the other people, but not themselves. Mattie Milner, lead author and PhD student at ERAU, cautions that, “With drones becoming more commonplace in our society, it’s important to understand how cultural factors, such as political affiliation, effect citizens’ support for drones, and how we can increase public support.”
What do all these findings tell us? Generally, people do not like to be watched. They particularly do not like to be video-taped secretly from the sky. And they really do not liked being targeted for their ethnicity, neighborhood choices, or political affiliations.
The safe, responsible use of small unmanned aircraft systems can help police find missing senior citizens, aid first responders after natural disasters, and support business goals such as improving the efficiency of pipeline inspections. At the same time, however, the continued proliferation of drones will undoubtedly trigger a rise in privacy concerns. To ensure that UAS technology benefits society as a whole, assessments of any proposed regulatory frameworks should always include careful review of public concerns.
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