Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to see a drone hovering outside of your window. A few nights later, it comes back. You know that someone, somewhere, is watching you in your home. Being stalked by someone using drone technology is a terrifying prospect, one that seems dystopian—but it recently happened to multiple women living in rural Southern Australia, according to news reports.
Two of the women being stalked "no longer shower at night for fear of being filmed," according to ABC. All say they're profoundly affected, with some experiencing feelings of panic at night. "It's got the point where I now sleep with a large wooden bat in my bed," one woman said.
The threat of being stalked or harassed by drones has been raised frequently in the media, often following reports of such activity. It has been several years since drones were popularized and released on the public market, but we're still grappling with the implications of what happens when this technology is abused.
"A big part of what makes drones so transformative is that they allow you to put cameras in areas that would be very difficult or dangerous to reach by traditional means," explains Arthur Holland Michel, the co-director of Bard College's Center for The Study of The Drone. "Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that the technology would be popular with stalkers."
Despite the fact that there isn't hard data on drone stalking incidents, Michel says that "incidents like this are becoming increasingly common, and we can expect them to become even more common in the coming years." In 2015, for instance, man shot a drone from the sky because he said it was watching his teenage daughter; a year later, a New York Times columnist was literally in the process of writing about the phenomenon of drone peeping toms when a drone appeared outside of his window.
Somewhat hearteningly, Michel points out that there are some aspects of drone technology that may hinder their ability to serve as "the ultimate stalking tool." For instance, drones typically have about 20 minutes of flight time. "And they are noisy," he adds, making them easily detectable at low altitude. Still, though, 20 minutes is plenty of time for a stalker to film you while you sleep—and someone being nonconsensually filmed by a drone has little recourse.
"Aside from going indoors and shutting your blinds, there's not much you can do when a drone flies near you," Michel says. "Shooting them down could be illegal, and it's dangerous." While there are "counter-drone jamming systems" are available for sale, such software is not currently legal in the United States. The protections may need to come from properly regulating ownership and use of drones, but Michel says that is not a timely solution.
For now, drones do pose a serious risk for the invasion of privacy, and it's challenging to hold anyone responsible. "It's very difficult to find a drone operator when you spot a drone in the sky," Michel laments. "In most cases that we've tracked, the police never find the perpetrators."