Saturday, March 01, 2014

Drone Civil Disobedience?

Image via Wikipedia
Regular readers will recall Grits was no great fan of Texas' new statute regulating unmanned aircraft passed in 2013, which is so poorly written that nobody including police and prosecutors really have a clue what's legal or illegal. So I had to laugh when I saw that MAKE magazine is sponsoring an event during SXSW dubbed a "Fly-in" (like a "sit-in" in the sky) that, I suppose, could be viewed as a de facto act of drone-based civil disobedience.

Texas' new law stipulates that "A person commits an offense if the person uses an unmanned aircraft to capture an image of an individual or privately owned real property in this state with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image." The term "surveillance," though, is undefined in the statute. Most of these unmanned aircraft will inevitably be equipped with cameras that may capture "an image of an individual or privately owned real property" as they fly around. But while there are many exceptions in the statute to for law enforcement, utilities, oil and gas companies, etc., there's no exception for simple hobbyists like most of the folks who'll be attending the SXSW event.

I doubt law enforcement will come out to arrest DIY drone flyers at the Austin "Fly-in," but the fact that in theory they could shows why the statute was misguided, over-broad, and premature. When the law passed at the Texas Legislature, prosecutors predicted no one would ever be charged under it because the statute is too vague and contains many, often confusing caveats and exceptions that no one - either in the public or among law enforcement - really understands.

Arguably, DIY drones aren't engaging in "surveillance" but "sousveillance," or the recording of an activity by a participant in that activity. Texas' statute doesn't make such a distinction, but the realities of unmanned aircraft and the rapidity of their adoption for innumerable legitimate uses, many of which involve photography, show why the law as written really isn't ready for prime time.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Drones from groups that have an axe to grind have used drones to harass neighbors. They did not approve of their neighbors activities on their own property so they decided to record and post it on YouTube!
Drones are an invasion of Americans privacy and should be outlawed.

Matt Wynan said...

I do agree with you. I think the law that was passed was really vague and should have warranted a review before being passed. Drones by principle are used for military and security surveillance purposes. They have helped capture drug dealers and possible terrorists and I think using drones for those are primarily okay. However, using your very own drone to spy on an attractive neighbor is just plain invasion of privacy. And this is where the law lacks clarity. It does not clearly state what constitutes 'surveillance.'
Matt Wynan