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Privacy Concerns Abound As Coloradans Continue To See 'Mystery Drones'

KUNC composite illustration
Vectors by Keneeko and Sinisa Maric via Pixabay

As officials chalked up dozens of "mystery drone" sightings to things like reflections on jets at Denver's airport, residents in Colorado and bordering states continue to post grainy videos that they insist are evidence of large drones flying in groups. Meanwhile, a legal expert is voicing concerns about privacy.

Colorado law has long allowed aircraft to fly over homes, but should that include drones?

"What if it's not flying 1,000 feet or 500 feet over your land, but it's flying really low to your land and it's doing it repeatedly and it's buzzing and it's annoying?" said Margo Kaminski, an associate law professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "Then, as a property owner, can you tell that person to get out? That's an open question."

State homeland security officials say 14 of the 90 sightings they looked into since Nov. 23 were drones, but none were the large drones some have described. Rather, they were small drones like your neighbor might have.

"What we have been able to verify are misidentified planets, stars, small hobbyist drones and a lot of aircraft in the area," said Micki Trost, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Aside from concerns about stalking or peeping, drone use raises issues that courts and states are only starting to understand, Kaminski said. For instance, if a drone captures images, they might be combined with information from the internet, smartphone data, GPS and other electronic footprints, posing a privacy threat.

"It's that pervasive, persistent tracking over time, even in public locations, that can reveal incredibly intimate things about us," Kaminski said. "Where we didn't seem to be so concerned about being pervasively watched on the internet until real recently, people reacted quite strongly to an eye in the sky — and an eye in the sky that they could see and that buzzes at them."

Case in point, the tiny Town of Deer Trail east of Denver. In 2014, the community put a proposal about hunting licenses for drones on the ballot. It might have been a bit of a lark, but in the short time since then, drones have become practically ubiquitous. Across the country, more than 1.5 million drones are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Yet there are expected to be hundreds of thousands more because hobbyists don't have to register with the FAA, which predicts strong drone growth in the years ahead. The agency is looking into regulations that would require digital signatures on drones so that their pilots can be identified by aviation officials or law-enforcement if needed.

A rule like that might solve the mystery of the large drones that have been spotted on the plains of Colorado by residents like RaeMarie Knowles. She and her family rushed out of their house north of Kiowa on a cold Saturday night earlier this month after they heard a large whooshing sound. From their porch, they watched an object with lights hovering low. Knowles stood under it, pulled out her camera, pressed Record, and captured the sounds and lights on grainy video.

"The video did not do it justice," Knowles said.

She said she is certain what her family saw was a drone and many more like it approached her horse ranch that night, she added. They moved from the east and to the west, toward the Denver-metro area. She counted 30 of them.

"It's the size of a pickup," she said. "I mean, they're big and the undercarriage is lit up. You can tell it's not any kind of plane or anything like that. You can kind of see the outline in the dark."

A long list of federal and local agencies have dug into the sightings, but Knowles said authorities did not look at her case.

"No, not to my knowledge," Knowles said, though she also said she did not report the sighting, but instead posted her video to social media.

Just four of the cases the state assessed could not be explained. None of those were reports of large drones, said Trost with Homeland Security. That led the state to announce earlier this week a scaling back of their mystery drone investigations, including air operations. They're not off the case, Trost said. Colorado's division of homeland security is still taking drone tips online www.CIACCO.org.

Meanwhile Knowles is left wondering.

"You just kind of stand there and look at them and go, 'What in the world is going on here?'" she said.

She has no way to know if the object she videoed was also taking pictures of her and her family.

Colorado doesn't have a law preventing that, said Kaminski, the privacy expert, but other states do. Wisconsin makes it illegal to use drones to take pictures in settings where people have an expectation of privacy, she said. California has taken a more sweeping approach.

There, people have rights regarding data collected on them so that "I know what you have," Kaminski said. "I know what you're doing with it and I can restrict, to some extent, what it is you do with that and how it impacts my life down the line."

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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