A bill passed recently in the Utah Legislature is striving to address privacy concerns about the recreational use of drones.
S.B. 111 prohibits drone operators from committing trespass, voyeurism or other privacy violations and establishes criminal penalties for doing so. It also deals with the safe operation of drones.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Salt Lake, the bill’s sponsor, said he had multiple constituents come forward with examples of drones following them down the sidewalk or hovering by their bedroom window.
Harper said after hearing these stories, he was careful in crafting the bill to generalize the meanings of and penalties for voyeurism, trespassing and other privacy violations to accommodate evolving technology.
“Regardless of how you do it, voyeurism is voyeurism, harassment is harassment,” he said. “In the future as technology changes, law enforcement will still have the same tool and rules and law by which they go to investigate these acts.”
BYU news media professor and licensed drone pilot Quint Randle said there is paranoia surrounding drones, and some of it is warranted — but some of it is simply paranoia.
“There is a debate over privacy, and I acknowledge that debate. People do have a right of privacy to some degree,” he said. “But it seems like I should have the right to fly my aircraft from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ at 300 feet without having to worry about whether someone’s going to get worked up because I crossed their property line.”
Neal Munson, a BYU junior majoring in physics-astronomy, said a drone in the wrong hands could become a problem.
Munson also said while he’s cautious about drones, he isn’t necessarily against them.
“I’ve flown a drone before. I thought it was a cool way to be on the ground and have your head up in the sky,” he said.
Elizabeth Melby, a BYU junior and human development major, said she recently had an experience that caused her to question her privacy and safety in a world of drones.
Melby said she thinks in some cases it is appropriate for law enforcement to enlist the help of drones, but having strangers watching is a different matter.
“I mean you don’t want someone flying their camera over your house,” she said. “That’s a real recipe for some real weirdos.”
She also said it’s creepy to think people can watch anyone from above with a drone.
Randle said as a drone user, he tries to be considerate when flying over private property. He also avoids flying his drone around his neighborhood and creeping out his neighbors.
Randle said recently the law was changed so individuals who use drones as hobbyists no longer have to register with the Federal Aviation Administration. Individuals who use drones for commercial purposes are still required to register for a Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 license.
Randle has his license because he uses his drone for both recreation and professional work.
He said another side of this complex issue is the federal government’s control of the airspace and the state’s lack of control.
“What the states have done is they are taking a privacy angle to say, ‘Well, we may not control the airspace but we can try to control the airspace by saying you’re invading privacy by being above someone’s house,’” Randle said.
There are even some authority issues within the state as well. Harper said drone users often can’t tell when they’ve crossed a city line, so it is difficult for every city or county in the state to have different rules.
“It was agreed to by the cities and counties and state that there would be one rule statewide for consistency, clarity and ease of compliance for the recreational users,” Harper said.
Randle said the current laws in Utah are reasonable for drone users. He sees the drone controversy around privacy, state and federal laws, and other issues — such as the extent of property lines — going to the Supreme Court one day.
Harper said S.B. 111 is still in the process of being implemented as word gets out about the changes to the law and as law enforcement adopt new rules and procedures. He is currently supporting the passage of the U.S. S.B. 1272, the Drone Federalism Act of 2017, which would allow states and local municipalities to decide on drone rules for their specific regions, shifting the responsibility and control from the Federal Aviation Administration to the local government.
“That will really give the states and the (Federal Aviation Administration) great parameters and guidelines as to what they should be doing and who should be doing what,” Harper said.