Next Generation State Privacy Law: Regulating the Commercial Use of Drones

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When most Americans think of drones, they think of unmanned, often weaponized aircraft that are used by governments in areas of conflict for intelligence or combat purposes. However, the proverbial sky is the limit on the potential commercial use of drones. For example, in a December 2013 60 Minutes interview, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, described his company’s efforts to develop GPS-programmed, autonomous drones (or in his words, “octocopters”) to serve as “delivery vehicles” to provide half-hour delivery of your future Amazon order. Although there will be hurdles to the widespread commercial adoption of drones as the Federal Aviation Administration works out the regulatory issues surrounding the licensing and use of drones in our airspace, our not-too-distant future could involve a world in which drones are literally buzzing above our heads.

Drones are, among other things, unmanned, light, easy to deploy and relatively cheap. As a result, companies could use drones for numerous purposes, including scientific research and exploration, monitoring livestock or gas pipelines, remote troubleshooting of technology, finding lost shipments or even as a substitute for the Super Bowl blimp. Because of advances in camera, video and audio technology (and the decreasing cost of that technology), however, drones could also be used to collect and communicate massive amounts of information about individuals and their everyday lives. Imagine a company taking its drones out for a spin on a Saturday morning in your town to conduct market research, observing how the average person mows the lawn, when the average person goes to grab coffee or how many bags of groceries the average person leaves with from the supermarket. Or, imagine a company flying a drone around its factory or retail location to monitor when its employees go on break or what end-caps its customers gravitate to or avoid. As is true with many new technologies, drones raise complex and often troubling privacy issues (remember your first cell phone…it didn’t have a camera or location services, right?).

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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