News Center

Elsewhere Online twitter Facebook SLS Blogs YouTube SLS Channel Linked In SLSNavigator SLS on Flickr

Why Drones May Bring A Renaissance, Not Erosion, Of Privacy

Publication Date: 
February 21, 2012
The Atlantic
Alexis Madrigal

Director of Privacy and Robotics at the Center for Internet and Society M. Ryan Calo spoke with Alex Madrigal of the Atlantic on the role that drones may play in increasing privacy protections.

You know that animal feeling you get when you're being watched? That horror-movie tingle along the back of the neck, that neolithic desire to look around and find the pair of eyes that belong to the creature that's stalking you?

Well, you should probably experience that every day on the Internet, but you don't. That's always exasperated privacy advocates who wonder why we all don't care more about people tracking across the interweb. But that may change, if Stanford's Ryan Calo, who researches privacy at the Center for Internet and Society, is right.

Calo believes that drones could be a catalyst to update and increase our privacy protections. That's because drones are "the cold, technological embodiment of observation." They are easy to see and fear, unlike the servers that track your clickstream across the web. In essence, when people see what drones can do, they'll run screaming to the courts and legislatures with a ferocity that purely digital privacy erosion has never generated.


Calo doesn't think we can look to the current body of privacy law for much help in keeping our lives private.

There is very little in our privacy law that would prohibit the use of drones within our borders. Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. In 1986, the Supreme Court found no search where local police flew over the defendant's backyard with a private plane. A few years later, the Court admitted evidence spotted by an officer in a helicopter looking through two missing roof panels in a greenhouse. Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments. [emphasis mine]


Calo, for one, is not despairing. The types of privacy issues drones create are easier to parse than ones that occur between you and your web browser, so are more likely to create a public outcry. Online privacy violations "tend to be hard to visualize."

Maybe somewhere, in some distant server farm, the government correlates two pieces of disparate information. Maybe one online advertiser you have never heard of merges with another to share email lists. Perhaps a shopper's purchase of an organic product increases the likelihood she is a Democrat just enough to cause her identity to be sold to a campaign. At most one can picture the occasional harmful outcome; its mechanism remains obscure.

But drones are a whole different story, Calo argues. If drones were to come into common usage, "people would feel observed, regardless of how or whether the information was actually used," he wrote. "The resulting backlash could force us to reexamine not merely the use of drones to observe, but the doctrines that today permit this use." In other words, perhaps the creepiness of drones would cast wider doubt on the enterprise of personal data collection.