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Editor's note: The following op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Times.
I like drones when they’re bombing terrorists, not when they’re used by stranger “hobbyists” to surreptitiously spy on and film unsuspecting Americans.
I’m about to write four words that I never thought I would: Kanye West is right.
Mr. West, a musician a better known for long, boring soliloquies about himself on stage and interrupting another person while she was on stage receiving a music award, has made one of his more salient remarks. The subject: his adorable daughter, North, with wife, yes, another two words I never thought I’d write — Kim Kardashian.
In this case, headlines are blaring something generally similar to this one from TMZ: “Kanye West: I Fear Electrocution by Drone,” And this from CNET: “Kanye West: Will a paparazzi drone electrocute my daughter?” Yet, he is right to be concerned, because in context, it’s something that could actually happen.
Mr. West’s concern stems from the proliferation of private drones armed with cameras being used to spy not only on celebrities, but on us regular folks, as well. The Federal Aviation Administration has regulations for businesses on their use of drones, but for a person who identifies as a “hobbyist,” the law is vague, and arguably nonexistent.
The concern about a drone electrocuting his daughter came in a deposition in a court case concerning a paparazzi from which Rolling Stone magazine reported this exchange, “Is your daughter stalked by, like, drones?” Mr. West asked the paparazzo’s lawyer, Nate Goldberg. “Are there drones flying where she’s trying to learn how to swim at age 1? Wouldn’t you like to just teach your daughter how to swim without a drone flying? What happens if a drone falls right next to her? Would it electrocute her?”
That is an excellent point, and not a casual concern. The FAA estimates there will likely be 7,500 or more hobbyist drone operators within five years. While many of those drones will be flown to capture lovely scenic video, we’re seeing the tendency to spy on, harass or otherwise take unwanted photographs, especially of women and girls.
The Los Angeles Times reports that in one case, a woman in Hermosa Beach, Calif., complained to a lifeguard that a drone was hovering above her daughter while sunbathing; a woman at a Virginia beach had the same violating experience and realized the drone was snapping pictures of all the women on the beach.
Being looked at on the beach is inevitable, and we accept that, but this is about women and girls being photographed and filmed without their consent. In Connecticut, Forbes reports, a woman allegedly assaulted a drone operator for what she thought was his filming of women and girls on the beach. She was arrested and now faces one year in jail if convicted. The drone operator? He was assured he could continue his, um, hobby as there are no laws against flying and filming in public places.
That has to change.
Jennifer Lynch, a senior attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital legal advocacy group, told The Los Angeles Times, “Once drones become widely used in our society, there’s going to be a lot of concern,” she said. “It’s because they’re so in-your-face. It’s easy to see the drone. It’s easy to recognize the privacy implications.”
For women especially, and the irreversible impact of photographs and video on the Internet, the issue of basic privacy is a legitimate concern. We have “peeping Tom” laws across the nation for a reason. We recognize that some stranger staring at your daughter through a window, or following your 15-year-old around the beach, is frightening and unacceptable behavior. Why should it be acceptable if a jerk uses the proxy of a drone?
The Justia law blog brings up one family’s experience in Seattle, which should disturb everyone: ” I looked out my third-story window to see a drone hovering a few feet away. My husband went to talk to the man on the sidewalk outside our home who was operating the drone with a remote control, to ask him to not fly his drone near our home. The man insisted that it is legal for him to fly an aerial drone over our yard and adjacent to our windows. He noted that the drone has a camera, which transmits images he viewed through a set of glasses. He purported to be doing “research .”
It’s not just people being harassed. “In April, volunteers at Zion National Park in Utah watched a drone buzz over a herd of bighorn sheep, separating the adults from the young. That’s harassment,” said National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson. “Those are the kinds of things that have been going on,” reported The Los Angeles Times.
Last October, a drone in Manhattan delivered a rather harrowing experience to a New Yorker minding his own business just outside of the train station. According to The New York Post, a drone “fell from the sky after accidentally hitting the side of a building, where it almost struck a man as it crash-landed near Grand Central Station.”
Now imagine Mr. West’s concern about a drone videotaping his toddler learning to swim in the family pool. At their home. Which has a wall and comes with some expectation of privacy. To say nothing of the legitimate concern of the danger of a powered vehicle crashing into that pool.
Fortunately for those in Los Angeles, a private operator recently flew his drone directly over the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood division parking lot. Let’s just say the police were not happy, and now according to The Los Angeles Times, the LAPD is committed to working with “the city attorney’s office and city officials to update local laws — perhaps pertaining to peeping Toms and trespassing — to include language specifically addressing drones.”
It’s about time. This isn’t brain surgery, and laws are already on the books. Every locality should act and do so quickly.