You may remember the "arms race" that took place with regard to radar detectors when they were first introduced. In the early days of radar detectors, if you were able to stay ahead of the band used by your local law enforcement, you stood a good chance of being tipped off to a speed trap before you came within range of it. New bands were introduced in an attempt to foil detection methods, and when the available detectors covered most or all of the bands in use, law enforcement switched to pulse technology (or they left the detector off and switched it on immediately before clocking a vehicle). Lasers changed the game again, and on it went, with new technology introduced first to counter authorities' monitoring, then by authorities to counter the countering.
One of the newer frontiers in the consumer technology arms race is the drone. Already, flying drones that can be controlled remotely and monitored in real time (or which come equipped with cameras that at least record what the drone sees) are widely available and very affordable. Video-sharing site YouTube boasts many drone videos, some of them fascinating (such as an aerial tour of a long-abandoned Renaissance Faire village) and some of them humorous (such as when a drone runs out of power and its owner scrambles to rescue it from landing in an electronics-ruining body of water). But we have also seen the first salvos in a war over drone technology that has nothing to do with President Obama's use of armed, unmanned aircraft: At least one American citizen has been arrested for using a shotgun to knock down a drone that he believed was buzzing his private property and placing him under surveillance.
When any of your neighbors who has an AC outlet, a smartphone and less than 200 dollars can purchase a flying camera that can overfly your property and peek into your windows, you (and I) have a serious problem. That problem is one of personal space or, more specifically, personal airspace.
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The Internet gossip site The Daily Dot usually contents itself with whining about white male privilege or some other progressive talking point, but Daily Dot contributor Selena Larson recently profiled a very interesting development in the personal drone arms race. "The Berlin-based startup," Larson writes of Cyborg Unplug, "created a device to ensure no unwanted wireless surveillance captures data from anywhere it's not supposed to be. The Cyborg Unplug connects to your wireless network and plugs into an outlet in your home or business. It scans wireless signals coming from different devices, and if it detects a signal from a device you haven't authorized on your network, it shuts down the video, audio, or other information the device is capturing."
According to Larson, the Cyborg Unplug devices has two different modes. In one, it disables all wireless surveillance technology, effectively acting like a cell-phone jammer (the use of which may not be legal where you live, as such jammers are frequently contraindicated). In its less invasive mode, it connects to your home network and kicks off any connected devices you haven't specifically authorized. Cyborg Unplug can also tell you what devices are trying to connect to your network by identifying their unique wireless signatures. "In the drone scenario," Larson writes, "the Cyborg Unplug isn't shutting down the drone itself, rather the camera that's attached to it." Cyborg Unplug has a mobile app for iPhones and Android phones.
While not exactly a force-field of personal airspace defense, Cyborg Unplug is a step in the right direction. You can also take steps to protect your property from drone surveillance using physical means. By considering what an aerial view of your property might reveal about your home, its security and its layout, you could conceivably erect camouflage tarps, netting, or other visual barriers to guard certain areas of what you own. You can also make diligent use of blinds and privacy screens to prevent unwanted peeking into your windows. But what are your property rights when it comes to an unwanted drone intrusion over land that you own, or over an apartment that you rent? This is less clear and therefore part of the problem citizens now face when contemplating the constant surveillance of themselves and their neighbors (by themselves and their neighbors).
"Can you shoot down a drone on your land?" asks Jeff John Roberts. "After a New Jersey man spotted his neighbor's camera-equipped drone flying over his house … he fetched a shotgun and peppered the drone with holes, knocking it from the sky. Did he have a right to do so? Even though local police arrested the man on unlawful weapons charges, some people will feel he had the right to defend himself against an unlawful robot intrusion. More broadly, the episode highlights an emerging issue as more drones take to the skies: how to balance the rights of drone owners against people's rights to privacy and self-defense."
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Roberts goes on to point out that, had the New Jersey man not violated weapons laws for discharging his shotgun in a prohibited area, he might well have been within his rights according to common law traditions. Defending the airspace over your home has rarely been an issue before now because the average person simply didn't have the technology to make it a problem. That's changing, but the legal landscape has yet to catch up to it. "The arrival of airplanes meant property rights no longer extend right to the sky," Roberts points out, "The reason you can't simply shoot a person (or cow) who steps on your lawn is that the harm would likely outweigh the threat to your privacy and your property. But when using force against a drone, the calculation is different: The drone is likely recording ... and, unlike other trespassing vehicles, you can't just tow it away."
For now, the threat of personal drones centers on privacy. Weaponized drones seem unlikely, but they are not impossible. As technology continues to evolve, so, too, must our property law and our vigilance. We cannot afford to forfeit ownership of our personal airspace unless we are willing to embrace total surveillance by – and on – our neighbors.
Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].