With all we know about the complexities of information privacy, why is the female sunbather the story that keeps capturing attention?
Maybe it’s because the sunbather narrative is easy; it’s concrete. A woman or girl who otherwise wouldn’t expose herself in a bikini suddenly has a much wider audience than intended. Maybe it’s because the sunbather narrative is actually happening at a greater frequency than other privacy issues; people are perverts, and prurience is a great motivator. Or maybe the sunbather narrative is just the latest spin on the old, old tale of Lady Godiva: Peeping Tom takes a look at the nude woman and is consequently struck blind or dead.
The sunbather story fails us because it ignores issues of information privacy. Drones will collect enormous amounts of information and absent federal omnibus data privacy law, which we don’t have in the United States, there is next to nothing to govern that data’s processing or use. This includes combining data from one drone with data from other devices, to create a near-complete portrait of somebody’s physical interactions. Retailers and insurance companies, just as examples, could certainly be motivated to create these kinds of data portraits of people. (As of publication, insurance companies had received 276 special permissions from the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones.) We are already profiled online by data brokers; companies have every incentive to try to extend that profiling to physical space. And they don’t want to have to ask for permission to get it.
However, the sunbather narrative isn’t completely wrong. It resonates precisely because drones, like an array of other new technologies, sit at the intersection of spatial and information privacy. The sunbather story illustrates a spatial privacy problem: Once, fathers thought their daughters were protected by the six-foot privacy fence. (The daughters themselves may or may not have cared.) Now, drones make that fence irrelevant. Physical architecture once constrained people from seeing into others’ backyards or upstairs windows; now drones, like thermal-imaging technology, can discern information that was otherwise obtained only at great cost. The question is whether or when the law should intervene to impose legal costs where the physical and financial constraints have fallen. Law can enable us to continue to manage our privacy using features of the real world that we’ve grown up with—and grown dependent on.
I hate editing articles like this because so much gets lost. There is no doubt that concerns about privacy have as much potential to slow drone adoption and widespread use as any other single issue.
A drone peering in your window or flying over your barbecue is creepy. What makes it creepier is that it is just one of the many ways that government and business regularly appear to intrude in our lives. As last year’s Pew Report demonstrated, people don’t have much hope that any of their records will remain private. In this regard, a drone is a powerful reminder of just how exposed we are to people we cannot even see. It may not be OK to shoot them down, but there are other ways to ground them.