Peeping drones? How technology is outpacing privacy laws

Sandwich mother Holly Peterson was in her backyard with her kids when she heard the humming.

“I was standing right over here, filling up my watering can. It started getting louder and louder, almost like a giant mosquito," she said.

Then she saw it.

“Finally, I looked up and saw this drone coming towards me, over my neighbors’ backyard,” Peterson told Boston 25 News Anchor Kerry Kavanaugh. "It was just hovering there. It looked like it was facing me and looking at me. That was creepy and weird.”

After Peterson and her husband motioned toward the drone, they say it flew off.

“We have no idea who it could be or why,” Peterson said.

Nor did they know what to do or who to call.

In April, a Marblehead homeowner called police after a drone flew up to her window.  According to the police call for service, when she asked about the law regarding drones, the officer told her ‘there aren't any’.

“Everyone here is trying to figure out this area of law,” said Somerville-based property litigation attorney, Adam Sherwin.

Sherwin is also a drone enthusiast and said it’s reasonable for people to have privacy concerns with this new technology.

“I don’t think it’s different than any other new technology,” Sherwin said. “Many of us aren’t intending to use these in a bad way and there has to be a clear line; what counts as interference and what counts as just using a drone?”

What determines the difference between spying and exploring? The law in this area is vague. The Federal Aviation Administration does have some basic restrictions.

A drone hobbyist:

  • Can't fly within 5 miles of an airport
  • Must fly within visual line of sight
  • Has to register it with the FAA

There are separate rules for commercial drone operators, including a licensing requirement.

“It comes with education,” said Cliff Whitney. Whitney is training people to use drones responsibly at a school in Georgia, one of the first in the country.

“Even the rules and regulations governing drones, they are evolving constantly," he said.

He thinks some privacy concerns are overstated.

“Everyone thinks drones are affecting this and they’re ‘peeping toms.' Well, the reality is that doesn’t work,” Whitney said. “If I go up to a house and I look in the window, you’re not going to see anything. The reflectiveness doesn’t work.”

Under the Obama administration, the feds drafted voluntary best practices for drone operators.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration encourages operators to:

  • Inform affected people of drone use and data collection
  • Carefully collect and store data that identifies someone
  • Limit sharing that data
  • Secure it

Holly Peterson thinks with more drones in the sky there should be more explicit rules to protect families like hers.

“I feel like there should be some kind of regulations. Stay out of peoples’ backyards stay out of peoples’ private property,” Peterson said. “Stay out of our yards.”

Officials have been debating how much control municipalities can have over drone regulations for years. The city of Newton tried and failed to regulate them, with a judge suggesting they couldn't supersede the federal rules.