When Drones Become Peeping-toms
Privacy, trespass, technology, protection, reasonableness—how to balance all of these
 
Over the past two years, we have often talked of trespass over private property. The coconut tree story was one. The other was of a bullet flying through the air over another man’s land. Civil action or criminal intent, the theory is that a man’s home is his castle and none shall disturb his possession.
 
We have also heard of there being too many laws and more are being enacted. There are attempts to whittle some down but the additions seem to win the race. Why is it so?
Technology has a great part to play in this. It is said that, between the years 1700 and 1900, technology doubled from what it was in previous history. In the next 100 years, it doubled again. Now, the doubling will be counted in years, not centuries. With this explosion of knowledge, comes more regulation. The prime example is the 2G, 3G and 4G laws; the encryption rigmarole; social media and the Internet are next.
 
How did tech-knowledge and trespass come to cross each other’s path? Drones. Those little helicopters that are making the news these days mainly in wars. The gadgets are now also used to deliver goods to remote, and not-so-remote, homes. Other than that, drones are effective for traffic as well as crowd control. 
 
Electronically controlled, either directly or by pre-programming, drones are used for a variety of sinister purposes, mainly spying. That is done by moving the drone over a designated area and controlling it from the base. The photos are taken in real time and transmitted back. Alternatively, the camera records the area below.
 
We now come across a legal question. Who owns the sky above your property? Is an airplane flying over it, violating your rights? The fact is that the air above you is your own, but flights are exempted from action. This seems a fair compromise. Except that drones, in America, are meant to fly under 400 feet. If they fly above that, they violate the airspace of aircrafts. They stay beneath the limit and fly over houses and homes and lawns and terraces and swimming pools. Fertile grounds for snooping. 
 
Peeping is not new. Sometime back, a man in Pune installed a CCTV, a closed circuit camera, in his bathroom. He also let the house out to girls. One such guest noticed the device and complained. Does the ‘Castle Doctrine’ hold?
 
You be the judge. 
 
Cannot a man do what he wants in his own home? Can he not spy on his guests? Decency, not voyeurism, the court said, and the man was punished. Very similar to our earliest story about the young thief being shot by a booby-trapped gun. And the one about dangerous dogs. The law says that under such circumstances, one needs to post a notice. ‘THIS SHOP IS BOOBY-TRAPPED’; BEWARE OF DOGS’; ‘THIS BATHROOM HAS…’!!!!
 
Back to the drones. While our laws in India do not have drone problems and illegal snooping is punished, drones have become a big headache in the US. Two of them have already been shot down, Americans being a gun-packing society. Both shooters have been arrested. The reasons given are: the shooters did not first try to find less violent ways to shoo away the drones; they did not try to find out if there was an emergency. Both had confessed to shooting the drones down, citing privacy problems, especially with daughters being targeted. 
 
Privacy, trespass, technology, protection, reasonableness. Life is getting more complicated by the day. Laws, that date back ages, could not have foreseen these situations. Intrusion into one’s privacy is a touchy issue and most societies frown on it. In some Mid-East countries, using a pair of binoculars, without specific reason, is an invitation to prison. Spy cameras in space are so accurate that they boast of reading the licence plate on a car. If aimed at your garage, within your compound, it should constitute an offence.
 
Or would it?
 
(Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected])
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