You’re trying to spend a nice relaxing afternoon on your patio and suddenly there’s this droning electrical noise coming from somewhere, you look up and see a drone hovering above your yard. Is someone trying to spy on you? It could be innocent. Maybe they’re just testing out their new toy or getting some aerial footage of the landscape. But there is certainly a chance that it’s something more ominous.
With how much adoption of drones (by professionals, government agencies, and individual people) has surged recently, these fantastic devices have become more prevalent. But not everyone is going to listen to the rules and there are unscrupulous people who won’t hesitate to use their new toys for illegal ventures.
The question is, what can you do if you suspect someone is using their drone to spy on you? Read on to find out about your rights and which laws apply.
How to tell if a drone is spying on you?
Usually, you’ll know there’s a drone in the vicinity because you will either see or hear it. If the drone is constantly hovering in the area or coming closer to you, then the odds are high that its operator is watching you. There may also be cases where it flies away and comes back again.
But keep in mind that as the technology continues to improve, drones keep getting smaller and less noisy. This means that you might not even realize there’s a drone watching you. Luckily you don’t need to splurge on training a falcon to detect drones, as a number of anti-drone technologies are also starting to emerge on the market. For instance, drone-detecting radars can now be bought that are designed to accurately detect drones across quite a distance. They’re also not too expensive either.
Recently, a neat little drone detection technique was also discovered by Israeli researchers using radio waves. It’s not exactly simple, and you can’t necessarily replicate it yourself just yet, but it is a promising development. Especially since the technique can be used to determine whether a drone is actually spying on you or just looking at something else.
What to do if a drone is watching you
Try to locate and talk to the operator first.
Obviously, this is often easier said than done. If you know your neighbors (and whether any of them recently purchased a drone) then it’s easy enough to track down the “culprit”. But it is also possible that you’ll see the operator in the area and can just head over and talk to them. It is best to wait until they’ve landed the drone to do so, for safety reasons, so you might want to indicate to them that you want to have a chat first so they can safely land the drone.
Try to stay calm. It may be that they’re unaware of your presence or were just taking footage of the area in general and not you specifically. There can also be other legitimate reasons for them being there, such as a real estate agent taking drone footage of a property they’re trying to sell.
If they’re uncooperative, then there isn’t much you can do right then and there. Do not try to damage the drone as it can land you in hot water, even if they were in the wrong. If possible, you can ask to see their drone pilot’s certificate or try to take a photo of the registration number that should be clearly visible on their drone (if they’re following federal rules). Unless it will escalate the situation, in which case, rather back away. Also, document the situation and any recurring situations of drone flying/spying to help your case.
Look up the state and local laws for your area
By now, most states have “anti-peeping tom” laws in place that prevent using drones to spy on or record people in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Many also prevent drones from being flown in the airspace over private property without the owner or occupant’s consent.
Even if there are no local or state laws that prevent drones from flying over private property where you live, there are still other options available to you. Both the federal government agency in charge of regulating drones (Federal Aviation Administration) and many states have laws against flying a drone in a way that makes it a nuisance to others. This includes flying a drone directly over people or flying it in a way that disturbs the peace or safety of a person or their property.
Drone laws are set up in a way that protects the rights of the populace more so than those of the drone owner or operator. So wherever you decide to look, you likely have a strong case.
Call local law enforcement
If you feel there’s a serious problem, such as a drone hovering by your window, then treat it like any other form of trespassing. You can call 911, and if the perpetrator is still in the area when the police arrive, then they can arrest them if they’re breaking any laws (which they likely are).
Your other option is to open a case with local law enforcement to try and see if they can catch the person. You’ll want to document the specifics, such as the date and time of the incident(s), as well as the make, model, and any other characteristics of the drone if you can. Try to see in which direction the drone goes when it flies away, as this may be an indication of where the operator is/lives too. You can also try to follow it, if possible, to narrow down the spot where it came from.
Try to not stress too much about it
The majority of the time, drones are used for fun and legitimate purposes with no ill intent. Yes, this new technology is a new form of potential intrusion, but most people aren’t using them to look into their neighbors’ windows. Just know that, if someone is using a drone to spy on you, then there are options open to you. While regulation is still trying to catch up, for the most part, you do still have privacy rights. Drone spying is a legitimate offense and you are fully within your rights to report it to the local authorities.