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A California Bill That Would Ban Drones Over Private Property Gets Mixed Signals 

Wednesday, Jul 22 2015
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In 1946, Thomas Lee Causby, a chicken farmer in Greensboro, N.C., sued the U.S. government because low-flying military aircraft sowed terror and death among his birds. The Supreme Court ruled in Causby's favor, arguing that property owners are entitled to tranquil airspace immediately overhead.

Last week, in a decision that seemed to resurrect the Causby case, the California Assembly Judiciary Committee voted 9-to-1 to pass SB 142, a bill that would ban drones from flying over private property at distances under 350 feet without consent. "Drones have a lot of helpful and extremely innovative uses. But invading our privacy and property without permission shouldn't be among them," said Democratic state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, who wrote the bill.

SB 142 has earned a lukewarm reception from privacy advocates and drone enthusiasts, including many in the Bay Area, the epicenter of the commercial drone industry. According to the venture capital database CB Insights, Northern California is home to six of the 10 commercial American drone companies that have secured the most venture capital.

Bryan Galusha, cofounder of the personal drone accessory manufacturer Fighting Walrus, said privacy concerns are legitimate but Jackson's bill isn't practical. "How do you enforce it, for one thing?" he asked. "How do you tell what's 349 feet and what's 351?"

Jackson's office said the bill is more about prevention and establishing clear guidelines than about penalizing drone users. "We need to take extra precautions to ensure [drones] don't compromise our privacy or security and blur long-standing boundaries between public and private space," Jackson said.

Mario Mairena, government relations manager for the lobbying group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, isn't swayed. He counters that SB 142 would have a "drastic effect" on the drone industry and handicap both jobs and innovation. "Plus, your privacy can be violated in any number of ways," Mairena said, citing traffic cameras and store surveillance cameras as two examples.

For Jeremy Gillula of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the bill is a "well-intentioned" effort to prevent "nuisance by drone." Although the bill doesn't forbid your neighbor from spying on you, Gillula said, it does prohibit your neighbor — or anyone else with a drone — from disturbing your peace.

Still, not all privacy advocates are applauding. Brian Hearing, cofounder of drone detection company Drone Shield, wrote in an email to SF Weekly, "Bills focused on a technology instead of the illegal act don't seem to work ... Why not beef up privacy laws if that's what they're really trying to protect?"

Since Jackson's bill would still permit drones to fly over public spaces and someday deliver packages via drone, the privacy it protects is essentially the privacy of your own backyard. And if a drone operator is willing to fly above 350 feet into federal airspace, Gillula noted, "there's plenty a drone equipped with a zoom lens can see from that altitude."

About The Author

Jeremy Lybarger

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