9 Investigates lack of drone privacy rules

by: Scott Wickersham Updated:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Federal Aviation Administration expects 7 million drones will be sold in the U.S. by 2020. Many of them are small, cheap, have high-tech cameras and could be spying on people.

There are plenty of safety rules regarding drones but privacy is a gray area.

[FAA DRONE APP: B4UFLY]

Airplane pilot Kris Pederson showed Channel 9 his drone that has a 4K camera on it. He said he’s heard of possible spying.

“(Residents) turn around on the second story, drying off after a shower and there is something hovering in front of them,” Pederson said.

A worker at the Mint Apartments in uptown Charlotte called police in April because someone was flying a drone very close to the building. The worker was concerned the pilot was looking for valuables, possibly to steal.

Channel 9 contacted police and asked if officers found the pilot. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said they forwarded the report to the FAA. The FAA wouldn’t say what they did with that report.

What can people do to protect their privacy from drones? Attorney Tim Sellers said with small hobby drones, there’s not much people can do.

“(Drones) are completely unregulated by Congress, by the state. They’re just exempted,” Sellers said.

[READ: FAA regulations on drones]

If people see a drone close to their property, they’re told to not shoot it down because they will be the ones in trouble.

Police said they can’t do anything unless they can prove the pilot is using the drone to break an existing law, such as peeping. But homeowners associations can add drone restrictions to their bylaws.

“Do you think most HOAs have anything addressing that in their bylaws?” Channel 9 anchor Scott Wickersham asked.

“I’m absolutely certain that they don’t,” Sellers said.

A Washington, D.C. watch dog group has raised bigger concerns about drones possibly tracking people in crowds to gather data on them.

“Drones are mobile and easy to set up,” said Jeramie Scott, with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “If foot traffic changes and you want to go somewhere else to collect information, drones make it really easy to do that.”

The group filed a lawsuit to force the FAA to create privacy laws, similar to safety restrictions, regarding drones.

The FAA would not discuss the lawsuit but officials said they are trying to address the privacy issue.

The FAA said all drone users who register with the FAA get privacy guidelines, and commercial drone pilots are trained on privacy issues during their certification.

Each drone that is registered with the FAA also gets a number to help keep track of it.

[VIEW: How many and where drones are registered]

Since 2015, 670,000 drones have been entered into the FAA registry. Channel 9 found 1,451 drones registered in Charlotte.

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