Drones, also called unmanned aircraft systems, have many practical applications for personal, business and even government use — particularly when it comes to taking aerial photos and video. But as with any new technology, it’s important that our laws keep pace to protect people and their privacy.
A recent incident in Gorham, first reported by the Portland Press Herald, highlights how state law may not be adequate, or at least specific enough, to protect people from troubling forms of drone misuse.
A woman says she was followed by a drone for two days in January, tracking her in her car while she drove to a gas station and to her brother’s house in a neighboring town. She understandably called it an “unnerving” experience.
“I don’t know how long they’ve been watching, or why they’re doing it,” she said.
According to the woman, police essentially told her they were unable to help.
“The officer arrived and said, ‘Yeah, I see it. I don’t know what to tell you though. We can’t do too much,’” she said.
From our perspective, looking at the violation of privacy and stalking sections of the Maine criminal code, it appears that the use of a drone to surveil someone without authorization or stalk them may already be illegal under Maine statute (and thus something police can and should do something about — though it may be difficult to seize a drone and find its operator).
But because these statues don’t specifically address the use of drones, there’s a level of uncertainty that the Maine Legislature should move to clear up.
Two representatives, one Republican and one Democrat, are working on bills to address this question of drones and personal privacy.
Rep. John Andrews, a Republican from Paris, has introduced a bill aiming to create a new state law preventing the unauthorized use of drones to spy on people in their homes, with a focus on protecting young people.
“We need to address this now and protect our youth and citizens,” Andrews said in a press release. “Unauthorized surveillance, of minors in particular, is currently happening, with the potential to escalate if nothing is done to fix it.”
Andrews told the BDN in an interview that he decided to introduce the legislation after hearing from a business owner in his district, who said they had a young client whose family was being spied on by a drone. Andrews also cited the incident in Gorham.
He wants his bill, still in the early stages of development, to be narrowly focused on private property.
“I am asking the Legislative Council to allow this proposal through, so that the Legislature can address the problem created by the absence of laws protecting children and teens,” he added in the press release. “We must act to create a new area of law that allows the police to protect vulnerable citizens.”
Rep. Stephen Moriarty, a Democrat from Cumberland, has introduced related legislation, seeking to address the type of situation reported in Gorham by adding five words to the state’s existing stalking statute to expressly include the use of a drone.
“Let’s just come right out and say it — stalking with the use of a drone is against the law,” Moriarty told the BDN.
The Legislative Council, the Legislature’s administrative body made up of leaders from both houses and parties, is slated to consider on Thursday whether to allow the two drone bills to move forward in the current short session. There should be little doubt that this is a timely issue impacting personal privacy and public safety, and one that merits attention this session.
Andrews and Moriarty are approaching this issue in slightly different ways — with Andrews’ bill more focused on privacy in the home and Moriarty’s on what happens in public. Those approaches can be complimentary.
“Between his bill and mine, we cover the map,” said Moriarty, who noted that the two lawmakers have discussed their bills together this week.
Perhaps the bills can be combined to address both home privacy and public stalking considerations. Regardless, the Legislature should consider that and other questions as part of a much-needed discussion.