Once again, the present catches up with South’s near-future: on 30 January, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) issued Integration of Drones into Domestic Airspace: Selected Legal Issues, a report outlining (among other things) the problems of trespassing and voyeurism that private operation of drones will bring literally to our doorsteps by October 2015, when the FAA is supposed to implement new regulations governing expanded drone use in U.S. airspace.
Among other reassuring assertions in the report:
“Because the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies only to acts by government officials, surveillance by private actors such as the paparazzi, a commercial enterprise, or one’s neighbor is instead regulated, if at all, by state and federal statutes and judicial decisions.”
“Traditional crimes such as stalking, harassment, voyeurism, and wiretapping may all be committed through the operation of a drone.”
In case you didn’t know, local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies are already using drones such as the Predator over the U.S. and have been for some time. But they have to operate under more restrictive rules (for now) and with more oversight (for now). Privately owned drones will likely end up under much looser regulations, perhaps more like model airplanes than real ones.
This isn’t simply hypothetical. One of my neighbors has a drone like the one pictured at the top of this post and in this Slate article discussing the CRS report. It’s quieter than an electric weed-whacker, can hover quite nicely, thank you, and comes equipped with a camera. While I’m not especially concerned that I’ll find it buzzing my windows in my present (rather dull) life, if I had an attractive daughter who liked to sunbathe in the back yard, I might well be more exercised about it.
This drone is the size of a serving platter. Keep in mind that at least one U.S. defense contractor has developed a drone the size of a hummingbird. [5 Feb update: British soldiers in Afghanistan are using a microdrone built by Prox Dynamics AS, a Norwegian company. The Black Hornet Nano flies like a helicopter and is four inches long.]
Now imagine the paparazzi with these. Or the local TV news crew. Or that obnoxious guy across the street who whistles at every female he sees between the ages of 12 and 70. Or the condo association or Neighborhood Watch.
Slate reports that several bills are wending their way through Congress to restrict private drone use or expand privacy and property protections against them. However, laws of this sort rely on enforcement in an environment that has become steadily more hostile to claims of privacy, especially when there’s any kind of homeland-security or law-enforcement nexus.
In South, drones both armed and unarmed are commonplace, having replaced much airborne surveillance now carried out by helicopter. They’ve also largely taken over the physical following of suspects or surveillance targets by federal officers. By 2032, we may all be so used to being on The Man’s cameras that we may not even register it anymore.
There’s an inevitable byproduct of this that we may well notice, however. One of the characters in South makes an offhand reference to a “drone-porn website.” Get-rich-quick scheme: start buying up the URLs now. In a couple years, Joe Francis or the Bang Brothers will be knocking on your door, bearing wads of cash.