Starting in 2015, the skies above the United States will become infiltrated by a rare creature:
drones. Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones are currently forbidden from flying in U.S. airspace above 400 feet, unless the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides a license. But thanks to a bill passed by Congress early this year to make these licenses easier to get, drones will likely become a part of everyday life for Americans.
While fun and futuristic, this coming reality unearths serious questions about privacy and personal liberty in the 21st century. A report published last week by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) shows that our laws are currently unprepared to deal with the privacy implications posed by the use of drones. The report (pdf) is an excellent read — at least if you’re a wonk like me. But if you don’t have time to peruse a 20-page CRS report, here are the 13 things you must know about the looming drone privacy apocalypse.

1. There will be 30,000 drones in the sky in less than 20 years

drone swarm
The FAA estimates (pdf) that within the next 15 years, more than 20,000 drones will take to the skies in the U.S., including drones operated by police, military, public health and safety agencies, corporations, and the public in general. That number is expected to jump to 30,000 within 20 years from today — a number the FAA refers to as “relatively small.”

Currently, the FAA has only given out about 300 licenses to fly drones capable of cruising at more than 400 feet in the air.

2. Matters of privacy are all about “reasonableness”

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees our right against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The key word here is “unreasonable” — and thanks to our rapidly changing technologies, its definition is in near-constant flux.

CRS researcher and legislative attorney Richard M. Thompson II, who authored the report on drones, explains in the report that “the reasonableness of drone surveillance [as considered by the courts] would likely be informed by location of the search, the sophistication of the technology used, and society’s conception of privacy in an age of rapid technological advancement.”

It’s this last part — “society’s conception of privacy” — that you should worry about on a daily basis, as it applies to the use of information gathered by everything from drones flying over our back yards to GPS capabilities in our smartphones to our Facebook profiles. Once society becomes generally “OK” with certain information becoming public, or becoming public in a certain way — once we think of these things as “reasonable — the Fourth Amendment protects us less.

3. The Fourth Amendment: It depends what the definition of “search” is

As with what can be considered “reasonable,” the definition of what constitutes a “search” under the Fourth Amendment is a slippery beast. The Fourth Amendment provides for little wiggle room when it comes to activities performed in your home, behind closed doors and curtained windows. (No searches without a warrant there — most of the time, anyway.) But as soon as you leave the confines of your house, things start getting more complicated — and things get even worse when you consider surveillance that uses planes and helicopters.

Throw drones in the mix and, well, the fine line across which surveillance by the state becomes “search” gets downright knotty.

Thompson’s CRS report explains that a court reviewing the use of drones under the Fourth Amendment will have to consider past cases that involved “privacy in the home, privacy in public spaces, location tracking, manned aerial surveillance, those involving the national border,” and instances when warrants aren’t needed to perform a “routine” search (like searching a car at a U.S. border), to determine the definition of a “search.”

4. Drones will have the ability to see through walls and ceilings

x-ray vision
Thanks to technology like the Xaver 800 from Camero, which uses electromagnetic radar to construct 3D images of hidden objects, law enforcement and military personnel can now “see” through walls. Combine this with laser radar and thermal imaging techniques, and our homes practically have glass walls, as far as the police are concerned. Thompson estimates that similar technology will eventually be outfitted on drones, allowing them to see through ceilings and walls. The question before the courts will be: Without a warrant, is that reasonable?