Drones and Data: A Limited Impact on Privacy

85 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2020 Last revised: 20 May 2021

Date Written: May 20, 2021


Concerns about drones and their impact on privacy are misplaced. Most of the scenarios discussed in the academic literature and policy commentary simply assume that drones operate in a unique way. These discussions of drones and privacy have left the antecedent question unexamined – precisely how do drones impact privacy? This article is the first to clearly define the operational parameters of drones that impact privacy in a unique way. From this precise definition, we learn that drones operate in very few spaces that allow them to capture data inaccessible to other technologies. In short, how drones operate has a limited impact on privacy.

Drones, however, are primarily data collection devices. By tracing the flow of data into and from a drone, it becomes clear that many parties potentially have access to drone captured data. The privacy impact of drones, therefore, must be understood in the light of the third-party doctrine. Once a drone captures data about a person, that person has almost no recourse to prevent its sharing and distribution.

Drones have also stirred the emotions of legislators. Hundreds of provisions in state and local laws purport to address the privacy concerns presented by drones and their data. This article analyzes these laws and demonstrates that very few actually address the unique privacy impact of drones and their data flows. Furthermore, these laws interact with the third-party doctrine in a manner that mutes almost all privacy protections. Concerns about the privacy impact of drones, therefore, should focus on either limiting data capture by drones or changing the U.S. privacy doctrines.

Keywords: evidence, information technology, technology, aviation, information privacy, data privacy, third-party doctrine, privacy, data, drones, Fourth Amendment, policy, technology, technology policy

Suggested Citation

Sella-Villa, David, Drones and Data: A Limited Impact on Privacy (May 20, 2021). University of Richmond Law Review, Vol. 55 pg. 991 (2021), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3532510

David Sella-Villa (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States
3043772072 (Phone)

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