I-Team: Drone Usage Raises Legal Questions About Privacy - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Drone Usage Raises Legal Questions About Privacy

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Photo Credit: Drone America Photo Credit: Drone America

LAS VEGAS -- Nevada is one of six states chosen by the federal government to be a center of research and development of drone technology. Governor Brian Sandoval estimates a $2 billion economic jolt for the state as drones are integrated into everyday life. But there is a trade-off to any new technology, such as concerns about the widespread use of drones and what it might mean to personal privacy.

It's like the Internet. All sorts of good things have come from open access to the world wide web, but there are downsides as well. Imagine what mischief could be done with drones in the hands of the paparazzi, a creepy neighbor, government snoops, or even law enforcement operating without warrants. Governor Sandoval has put into place a framework for not only exploiting drone technology, but also for keeping it under control.

When high winds changed the direction of a deadly Arizona wildfire last June, 19 firefighters perished because they had scant time to react. An all-seeing drone might have given them a chance to escape. Metro search and rescue teams wished they had the use of a drone while searching for a 17-year-old who was swept away by flash floods in August 2012. Ranchers and farmers yearn for drones that might help them better manage scarce water resources in drought stricken Nevada and scientists at Desert Research Institute imagine all sorts programs to help us learn about the planet.

"We could see individual trees, shrubs, how they are responding to climate, water, different environmental stresses, pollutants," said Dr. Lynn Fenstermaker, DRI.

The institute is part of the team studying the use -- and control -- of flying robots. For every use we can imagine, there might be three we can't. It's not just coming soon. It's here.

"We already have curriculum in some of the high schools, Rancho High School. We will be implementing them in junior high. It all connects to the stem -- science, technology, engineering and math," Governor Brian Sandoval said.

Sandoval and Senator Harry Reid led the effort to put Nevada on the cutting edge of a multi-billion dollar industry. He knows there's a flip side as well -- privacy.

"Nevada is going to be the tip of the spear with concern to that because the FAA has identified Nevada as the place where we are going to sort out all the privacy concerns," Governor Sandoval said.

The pilots of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAV's, were sitting at military bases and able to control killer drones flying over Afghanistan with deadly efficiency. Some of that same technology will also appeal to agencies back home.

Police could use drones to conduct long-term surveillance of a home or neighborhood. Other agencies could use drones to monitor businesses for compliance with environmental or other laws. News organizations could presumably fly drones to gather hard-to-get footage or information and paparazzi types or peeping toms could peer into your backyards or windows.

Senator Dean Heller, a vocal critic of government surveillance programs, says his senate committee worries about privacy issues.

"Those questions come up," Heller said. "Senator Feinstein testified that she was being protested at her home and opened up the curtains of the window and was staring directly at what she thought was a drone. It was probably more of a toy, but in this case, something that shocked her to know that someone was looking in her window."

Courts might have to sort out how far government agencies can go in using drones and at what point they might need warrants, but the same constitutional protections don't exist for private entities.

"The more the use of drones becomes private, the more potential there is for invasion of privacy," said Dr. Tom McAffee, UNLV Boyd School of Law.

It's more than a classroom exercise for law professor Tom McAfee. He is part of a task force assigned the job of studying a whole range of potential privacy threats posed by UAV's. He thinks legal and regulatory protections can be worked out, as well as technological ones.

"They could even design them so they couldn't come more than a certain amount of closeness to buildings, for example, so you couldn't just go up to a window and take photographs," McAffee said.

Nevada universities and science agencies like DRI are already seeing the benefits of the drone explosion. Economic benefits and jobs are coming soon. It appears Nevada will also be on the forefront of figuring out how to protect what privacy we have left.

"They are going to sort these things out and insure public safety and privacy are affected and preserved," Sandoval said.

At DRI, they prefer not to use the word drones because it's a military term. They prefer to call them RPA or Remotely Piloted Aircraft.

 

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