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Respect Thy Neighbors: Privacy Invasion By Hobby Drones Targeted In Olympia

Don McCullough
Legislation in Washington state could set privacy rules for hobbyists flying drones such as this DJI Phantom drone, which has a Go Pro camera mounted underneath.

Sales of small, camera-equipped drones are soaring. Aside from air safety issues, these remotely-piloted aircraft can raise privacy concerns if they fly uninvited over your backyard or past your bedroom windows.

Washington state lawmakers began debating Wednesday whether to set privacy rules for hobbyists, as Idaho already has.

Democratic Washington State Representative Jeff Morris proposed to make it a misdemeanor to invade someone's privacy with a camera-equipped drone.

"This basically says, 'Hey, you can't use this technology in this unregulated space without someone's permission over their private property,’” Morris explained.

His legislation also would require that recreational drones be "clearly and conspicuously" labeled with the contact information of the owner. Idaho lawmakers charted a similar course in 2013 when they passed a law saying no person may fly a drone to photograph or record another person without their consent.

Morris said his bill is targeted at recreational use of drones. Separate, upcoming legislation aims to set rules for state and local government surveillance using unmanned aircraft, which Oregon and Idaho have already done.

Last year, Washington Governor Jay Inslee vetoed a prior version of the government drone bill. In 2012, Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate commercial use of drones. That federal rulemaking has fallen well behind schedule.

Last year, the Washington state House of Representatives overwhelming approved a previous version of Rep. Morris' bill to criminalize privacy invasion by drone. But the measure died without receiving a hearing in the state Senate. In an interview Wednesday, Morris said he was more hopeful his measure will reach the governor's desk this time, especially since the legislative session is longer this year and it is not an election year.

Some of the bad flying behavior targeted by lawmakers could fall under existing laws against voyeurism, stalking or harassment. Morris said his intent is to more broadly protect from airborne intrusion "the reasonable expectation of privacy" a person enjoys at home.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.