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California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a controversial drone privacy bill Wednesday, declaring that it would expose hobbyists to excessive litigation. Senate Bill 142 would have put anyone flying a drone less than 350 above someone’s property on the hook for trespassing.

“This bill, however, while well-intentioned, could expose the occasional hobbyist and the FAA-approved commercial user alike to burdensome litigation,” he wrote in a veto statement [PDF]. With legislation like Bill 142, it would be easy for a hobbyist flying a drone around his neighborhood or local park to accidentally run afoul of trespassing laws. 

See also: Weaponized Drones Are Now Legal In The U.S.

Drone proponents have been carefully watching as lawmakers attempt to figure out the nuances of these airborne devices. Unchecked, an overly zealous approach to protecting public safety and privacy, could have deep implications for the drone tech industry. Threat of legal action or even criminal penalty may dampen interest in the gadgets. Here, tech makers may have just dodged a bullet.

The Trouble With Laying Down The Drone Lines

PC Magazine found that the popular DJI Phantom 3 drone lost communication when it hit 400 feet in altitude and 1,200 feet in distance. In other words, hobbyist and toy drones really aren’t meant to go much beyond 350 feet.

So if residents see drones hovering over their yards, they may have just as easily come from hapless users who lost control of their devices as from tech-savvy “peeping toms.” Drones are the equivalent of baseballs that occasionally end up on the neighbor’s property—except, this baseball is equipped with a 12-megapixel camera.

Brown’s veto had the support of the Consumer Electronics Association, a powerful tech electronics lobby that tends to side against measures that it sees as hampering emerging technologies. The group obviously was pleased with the decision.

California isn’t alone. In total, the National Conference of State Legislators counts 19 states with drone laws on the books, many of which prohibit voyeurism.

Mississippi’s law literally calls it “peeping Tom” activities [PDF]. Certainly, unless a litigious neighbor catches the drone operator, it’s difficult to discern whether the flying object was taking photos. And, if images were taken, the case would have to prove that the pilot intended to catch the subject undressed.

As such, drone-related privacy is a difficult thing to legislate. For now, California, the home of Silicon Valley, has erred on the side of protecting drone enthusiasts and, by extension, the drone makers that cater to them.

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Lead photo by Don Mills

Gregory ferenstein

Former Staff Writer for ReadWrite. I started my career as a freelance writer in 2009 covering business innovation, did peer-reviewed research on Silicon Valley,(2016), architected bills in Congress (2017), and ran economic field experiments (2019).