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April 22, 2013

Use of Non-Military Drones Raises Privacy Concerns

Watch Rise of Domestic Drones Draws Questions About Privacy on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

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Americans are familiar with drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as lethal military weapons carrying out targeted strikes against militants overseas. However, thousands of remotely controlled aircraft of all shapes and sizes are legally flown in the U.S. today.

These domestic drones have a much more benign purpose than their military counterparts, and are mostly flown by hobbyists.

“We’re doing some community service projects in the area, working with the local park to make promotional videos from the air of some of their trails,” said Timothy Reuter, founder of the D.C. Area Drone User Group.

Other countries are already moving ahead with domestic unmanned aerial vehicles. In Spain, engineers used 3-D imaging systems to create detailed maps of buildings and monuments. Costa Rican scientists have used drones to monitor one of the country’s volcanoes. In Nepal, small unmanned aircraft with video cameras are flown above national parks to combat animal poaching.

Protesters in Eastern Europe used a drone to get a bird’s-eye view of the situation on the ground.

While some are excited about the possibilities of this new technology, others are wary of what this may mean for personal privacy in the U.S.

“The privacy laws that do exist are very targeted to the approach that the United States has taken to privacy, and they don’t encompass the type of surveillance that drones are able to conduct,” said Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.


“Unmanned systems bring a tremendous potential to help human beings do those dirty, dangerous, difficult, and dull jobs…They are an extension of the eyes, ears, hands of a human being,” – Michael Toscano, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

“We want to see legislation that addresses aerial surveillance as a whole, that doesn’t necessarily look at what technology is available on the market now, but what could be available, what has been available, and addresses that in a way that’s not going to be out-of-date in a couple of years,” – Amie Stepanovich, Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Warm-up questions

1. What is a drone? What do you know about them?

2. What does the phrase “right to privacy” mean to you?

3. How could cameras mounted on unmanned planes help people like park managers, architects and city planners?

Discussion questions

1. What did you find most interesting about this video?

2. What are the risks of drones? What are the benefits?

3. What would happen if a business owner wanted to use a drone to spy on a competitor? What if a father wanted to use a drone to spy on his son?

4. What regulations would you put on the use of drones to ensure that they are used safely and legally?

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