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Drone use by governments is expanding, so what does that mean for your privacy?

Posted at 3:27 PM, Oct 14, 2021

OAK ISLAND, N.C. — Drones are changing our lives.

“This is the town of Oak Island, please stay off the dunes,” a drone could recently be heard across a North Carolina beach.

It wasn't a scene from an upcoming Terminator film. It was a lifeguard in the sky.

The drone is operated by the town of Oak Island and it's used to monitor the town's beach and sand dunes.

It’s operated, and in some cases voiced, by pilot Sean Barry.

Barry has flown over 300 missions for the town of Oak Island since March.

“We fully support our police department, our fire department, and our local water rescue,” said Barry.

“Public safety, infrastructure, overall beach health,” said Mike Emory, the communications manager for the town.

He said Oak Island leaders use Barry and his drone in a variety of roles.

It's becoming common in cities across the country.

Over the last 10 years, more than 1,500 state and local public safety agencies in the U.S. have acquired a drone, according to The Center for the Study of the Drone.

“Right now, the crucial difference is between drones that view things that are in public versus drones that view things that are private,” said Ian Farrel, a law professor at the University of Denver.

He specializes in the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from unwarranted search and seizure.

“A drone that views you when you’re at the beach, a public beach or public sand dunes is not violating your reasonable expectations of privacy. What will become more challenging is if or when drones are being used to look, for instance, in people’s backyard or through their windows,” said Farrel.

Emory is already dealing with questions from friends and neighbors in Oak Island.

“That’s obviously one of the biggest apprehensions that a municipality may have when they start a program like this,” said Emory. “Our drone only flies in public airspaces. It only views things that are of town concern and any of the video and footage that we get, it’s a public record anyway.”

Farrel believes any privacy questions will ultimately be settled in our court system.

“Just about everything now could be accessible and unless you’re sort of thinking ahead to guard against it, the courts may say, 'Well it’s not reasonable of you to expect privacy in this because you didn’t take those steps to retain your privacy,'” said Farrel.

All sides agree that drones will become a bigger part of our lives in the years to come.

And they agree that, used correctly, the technology will make us safer.

“Any incident that comes with the preservation of life, that is the utmost priority. We’re here to help save lives, find people, find lost people and that is the utmost priority, everything else kind of trickles down after that,” said Barry.

Until then, stay off the dunes.