The military use of “spy drones” is very well established. United States Air Force drones have now done more than a million “combat hours”. Drones have been used by the police in Britain for some time. It is now reported that they are being used for news gathering purposes by News Corporation in the United States.

News Corporation’s iPad publication, The Daily has reportedly used its drone to capture aerial footage of Alabama storms and flooding in South Dakota. Their hardware is a MicroDrone md4-1000, a micro aerial vehicle that can be fitted with various imagery or sensor payloads. It appears that such use may be contrary to the Federal Aviation Administration rules which currently govern the use of drones – as they cannnot be used for commercial purposes.

It was recently reported that a Linux powered flying spy drone had been developed which was able to crack WiFi passwords and access GSM networks by posing as a mobile phone mast. A drone with a camera on board – and a flight time of 30 minutes – can be purchased in the UK for less than £10,000 (see this post for a discussion of a test flight).

The use of drones by media corporations obviously gives rise to serious privacy issues. These are discussed in a recent post by Ryan Calo on the US “Concurring Opinions” blog. He points out that the greatest use of drones is for surveillance:

“Industrial-grade drones can fly for miles searching for objects of interest or hover at a particular location and report any movement. Not only can they record high-resolution video, but some drones come equipped with thermal-imaging and other sensors capable of seeing what people cannot. There have even been reports of a drone capable of impersonating a cell tower so as to intercept phone conversations”.

The privacy implications of this are obvious. Drones could take photographs of activities on private land and, it has been suggested, inside houses. They are, as the “Daily Mail” has pointed outa dream tool for the paparazzi“.

Under the current English law, the publication of information obtained by such drones would, potentially, constitute a misuse of private information. It would depend on whether the individual to whom the information related had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in relation to the activity in question. The fact that the activity could be recorded from the “public sky” would not be decisive. The use of drones to record the movements of an individual might also constitute harassment.

In his post, which is entitled “Will drones save privacy law?“, Ryan Calo seeks to draw out some potential positive outcomes from the “drone” phenomenon. He suggests that the difficulty in obtaining public support for privacy law derives in part from an inability to visualize the processes behind modern privacy harm, “this lack of visceral cues, forms a significant part of the reason that privacy law lags so far behind advancements of technology“. However, he suggests that people may feel very different about drones:

The introduction of government and private drones into our cities will feel very different to the public and perhaps to the courts. What data there is suggests that Americans are nervous around robots. They may associate drones in particular with violence and the theater of war. The proliferation of drones in our skies could lead to a new, Warren and Brandeis moment—all of our amorphous fears about new technology watching us suddenly reified and immediate.

As a result, he suggests that drones could end up being good for privacy law with the backlash against their use generating public support for privacy protection. This is an interesting and optimistic thought but, as Calo rightly points out, the increased use of drones appears an inevitability. Regulatory action in relation to both private and public bodies is an urgent requirement.