April 15, 2013 at 3:14 PM ET
According to the Guardian, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said domestic drones pose a threat to personal privacy.
In a recent interview, Schmidt explained that peeping neighbors are one example of the privacy infringements that the flying cameras could allow.
"You're having a dispute with your neighbor," Schmidt told the news outlet. "How would you feel if your neighbor went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their back yard. It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?"
Privacy rights activists and early users of civilian drones are divided over the extent of regulation that is still needed before drones become an everyday sighting in U.S. cities. But the consensus seems to be that some regulation is necessary.
Today, small drones can be purchased and flown by people in the U.S. for private, non-commercial activities without special approval from the FAA. That's as long as fliers keep the FAA's guidelines for model aircraft operation in mind. Among those, private drones can't be flown out of range of sight, must be flown below 400 feet, and should avoid places like hospitals or schools where the noise could cause a disturbance.
Schmidt also had a perspective on weaponized drones, though it was unclear if he was referring to military drones or the possibility that domestic drone users could add those to their flying machines. Schmidt also said: "I'm not going to pass judgment on whether armies should exist, but I would prefer to not spread and democratize the ability to fight war to every single human being," he told the Guardian.
Schmidt is also worried about drones falling into the nefarious hands of terrorists. "Terrorists and criminals could use drones to carry IEDs [improvised explosive devices] — that could result in conflict between civil and military drones," he said at January talk at Cambridge University in the U.K.
Today's FAA guidelines ban weapon-carrying drones in the U.S. But some privacy advocates include the no-weapon clause in petitions for future regulation, just in case: Existing regulations are due to be updated as the FAA prepares to meet its federal mandate to include drones in the U.S. national airspace by 2015, and as the ACLU's Allie Bohm told NBC News: "We're not sure what those regulations will look like in 2015."
Schmidt's comments are curious considering that Google has funded the WWF's anti-poaching drone program in the past. Also, the company recently settled privacy lawsuits over collecting personal data from private Wi-Fi networks during construction of its Street View service, and for placing cookies in Safari browsers without telling its users it was doing so.
Adi Robertson at The Verge points out that Schmidt seems less opposed to the collection of private data by drones, and more concerned that the data could be misused. Which seems reasonable enough, given this 2009 interview with CNBC in which Schmidt touched on the subject of privacy: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," he said.