Which Is Worse: Shooting a Drone, or Being Surveilled by a Redditor?
Image: Drone Man

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Which Is Worse: Shooting a Drone, or Being Surveilled by a Redditor?

A man in Portland used his drone to investigate homeless pirates who he says are running a floating bike theft ring. They weren't, but they did shoot at his drone.
June 29, 2016, 6:17pm

A resident of Portland, Oregon who calls himself "Drone Man" has spent the last few weeks using a drone to surveil what he believes is an illegal, boat-based bicycle theft ring.

Earlier this week, Drone Man says a person on one of the boats finally lost his cool and began firing a gun at his drone, in a story that highlights many of the legal issues concerning hobby drones.

Oregon's mooring laws make it legal to live on a boat floating in Portland's Willamette River, which has given the city a population of transient boaters who often call themselves pirates.

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Not everyone is a fan of these people, however. Drone Man has been posting videos of their settlements online to "document environmental destruction."

In the latest video, he hovers above a few boats containing several old bikes and bike parts, some people rummaging around, and what look to be normal floats and ropes you'd have on a boat. Eventually, a man emerges from one of the boats and pulls out what looks to be a rifle.

"I could hear the gunshots plain as day, and there were about 10," Drone Man wrote to me in an email. "Dude also was screaming like a boss in a fantasy RPG: 'Show yourself coward!' *bang* 'COME ON OUT' *bang.*"

"I did not set out to provoke people to shoot my drone," he added. "That was a surprise."

On the Portland subreddit, Drone Man accused the people on the boats of operating a floating bicycle "chop shop" in which stolen bikes are stripped down to their parts and sold.

"How many loose bike parts do you have on your boat? Unless you race bikes I doubt you have 10 wheels and 4 loose frames at your disposal," the pilot told me in an email. (He declined to give his real name, and posted on Reddit that he's hiding his identity using the anonymizing browser Tor.) "It is meeting the hobos more than halfway to assume that their cache of bike parts is legit."

But the Multnomah County Sheriff's Department told Motherboard that the drone pilot is mistaken.

"We know the boats he's talking about—it is not a bicycle chop shop. It's a well-organized family that lives on the boat," Steve Alexander, the sheriff's public information officer, told me. After officers took a closer look at the videos and spoke to people on the river, the department declined to open an investigation.

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In that context, Drone Man isn't investigating homeless bike thieves, he's repeatedly surveilling people who are legally living on a boat under the guise of "documenting their effect on the environment." (Motherboard editor Michael Byrne watched the video and pointed out that "this video which apparently is meant to reveal such destruction, was taken literally a quarter mile from this, a marine terminal specializing the import of fucking coal tar.")

Image: Michael Byrne/Google Maps

It's legal to fly a drone above the river, and it's legal for the operator to publish his videos. If the people on the boat did in fact fire at the drone—there's no sound in the video, though it does appear like they are aiming a gun at the drone—well, then that is illegal.

The vast majority of drone pilots are doing things with their drones that won't raise any eyebrows. But they have also enabled operations that—while technically legal—certainly fall in a moral gray area. In some cases, people have basically become private investigators who have broad First Amendment protection to both take video and upload it to the internet.

"River hobos destroy the river, I document their effects on the environment. The problem is only getting worse and the city is doing nothing about it."

In Oklahoma City, a man named Brian Bates has made it his mission to surveil sex workers and report them to the police. In California, a man named Daniel Saulmon flies drones over cops to surveil the surveillers. Now this Portland drone operator has repeatedly turned his drones on transient boaters.

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"River hobos destroy the river, I document their effects on the environment," the drone pilot told me. "The problem is only getting worse and the city is doing nothing about it."

Three other videos he's posted to YouTube show "hobo island settlements" and more evidence of what he says are bike chop shops.

State anti-voyeurism laws generally make it illegal to photograph people if they're in their own homes or otherwise have a "reasonable expectation of privacy." The Willamette River is a public place, and the pilot's right to upload video he takes in public airspace is protected by the First Amendment.

Twelve states, including Oregon, have passed drone privacy laws, but none of them would have made these types of flights illegal. The Oregon law, for instance, only bans photos or videos taken surreptitiously from a drone "for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of the person"—and only apply if the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Legislators, privacy advocates, and drone enthusiasts have failed to find any sort of middle ground when it comes to passing laws that would protect privacy without destroying the drone industry or trampling on the First Amendment.

Because neither the pilot nor the people on the boat filed any sort of official complaint, this particular incident will fall by the wayside unless it happens again. For now, the pilot is allowed to continue flying over the river, and he's allowed to keep posting videos on YouTube and speculating about what the boaters are doing on Reddit. Crazy story, though.