Solving Drones’ Biggest Privacy Concern
In the past, if you didn’t want your neighbor seeing you sunbathe in your backyard, you simply built a fence. If your neighbor happened to be tall, you built a taller fence.
Today, things have changed.
Just like most consumer technologies, drones follow a direct inverse correlation when it comes to price and performance: the better they get, the cheaper they become. This means that in the near future we’ll be hearing loud buzzing every time we go to beaches and parks. But noise pollution aside, what’s more concerning is how this proliferation of drones will affect privacy.
What if your neighbor flew his drone 20 feet over your backyard ? How about a 100 feet? How far vertically do you own the rights to your property?What if he doesn’t even fly directly over your property, but next to it and can still watch you?
For those that don’t think this is a realistic scenario…
Thankfully, this time the footage was recorded by the girls’ father, but nonetheless we’re facing interesting legal challenges that will force us to reconceptualize privacy and trespassing laws.
The Battle Has Began
Over the last several years, not only have multiple criminal cases have been filed regarding drone invasion of privacy in the US, but we’re already seeing people take the law into their own hands by using guns to shoot obtrusive drones out of the sky. The conclusion is clear and twofold- people want privacy, and the law can’t provide it.
Design Imitates Reality
The show Black Mirror features the episode “White Christmas” which imagines a future society where retina implants allow people to block others from their sight in real time:
What if DJI drones could blur out faces in real-time, or even entire bodies?
Imagine the neighbor from earlier flying over your backyard but can’t see you sunbathing as your body is entirely blurred out in his video, or even removed in real time.
This approach is not as far fetched as it sounds- Google has been automatically blurring out faces in Google Street View for years, and newer DJI drone models already have the ability to recognize and track people and even follow them autonomously.
I envision a solution is similar to the National Do Not Call Registry database where people can sign up not to be called by telemarketers. Instead, people can add their face to a global exclusion list which could be pushed down to drones via firmware updates, much like DJI’s No Fly Zone which prohibits drone flight in restricted airspace.
I believe this could be achieved without any hardware changes to the drone, but with just a software update on the remote control device (smartphone or tablet) which could also store the blacklist database and perform the facial recognition. This will eliminate the battery and computational burden from the drone itself.
The privacy issue also applies to buildings, although this would require a different approach as censoring buildings presents a different set of challenges:
- It would require a wide variety of photo angles to capture the entire house.
- Residential property is often dynamic: cars and bikes in the driveway, lawnmowers in the front yard, etc
- A complete visual model of a house could get very large in size and take up much memory in drones
Potential Solution Vectors
I’m not sure what the solution is, but these are some areas worth exploring:
- Google Maps satellite view offers GPS coordinates along with a bird’s eye view images of property (probably not very useful)
- University of Washington has developed a method of recreating 3D models of buildings from video by analyzing their shadows, though it requires precise GPS coordinates of the camera.
- Tesla’s cars utilize “fleet learning” which means as each car captures local road conditions, it shares them with all other cars to increase their collective knowledge.
- New DJI drones are equipped with 3D sensors which could capture their environment and recreate a 3D topological map.
- Physical markers placed around the property.
If you have any solutions, please do comment below.
The issue of unsolicited photography doesn’t end at just drones. We’ve all been photographed at bars, concerts, parties and public places in general without our consent.
What if a similar blacklist existed for mobile phones?
Nothing is stopping Apple (legally) from pursuing a similar function in their iOS that excludes people who don’t wish to be photographed by strangers. Intelligent exceptions could be made based on contact lists, geo-proximity, bluetooth range, etc.
Believe it or not Apple already has a patent that’s somewhat relevant- blocking your camera’s function to record video and audio in a certain locations using infrared emitters. They example given in the patent is that of a concert where concert-goers are prevented from recording or photographing live performances.
Another related application is the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s yacht, which is equipped with “an anti-paparazzi “shield”. Lasers sweep the surroundings and when they detect a CCD, they fire a bolt of light right at the camera lens”
One thing is for certain- human privacy is a complex issue which will only intensify with increasing technological advancements. It’s important to note that the methods I’ve described above are not bullet proof as drones can be jailbroken just like iPhones. There also will be a myriad of legal challenges such as residential owners verifying property ownership rights, and drones capturing 3D models of private property, but I think they’re trivial in the grand scheme of things.
The protection of human rights is a constant cat and mouse game between technology and law where technology is alway a few steps ahead, which is why we must embrace it instead of shooting it out of the skies.