A model-aircraft hobbyist recently made an accidental discovery while flying his model airplane, equipped with camera, over the Columbia Packing Company, a Dallas, Texas meatpacking plant: a river of suspiciously red effluence flowing from behind the plant, pouring into the Trinity River. According to the article, based on the information provided by the hobbyist, “a local investigator was dispatched within 20 minutes, and onside within another 20”, and shortly thereafter the EPA, TCEQ, and Texas Parks and Wildlife executed a search warrant on the plant, finding “a pipe not connected to a waste water system“, apparently deliberately.
The scary part here is the immediate defense brought up (not necessarily by the plant itself, but by people in the comments section of several pages announcing the discovery). The argument is that the hobbyist was invading the plant’s privacy by taking photographs from his plane.
Where does the right to privacy end? Is it okay to dump biological agents (e.g., pig blood) into waterways as long as you’re not caught? Do people who are committing crimes have reasonable expectation of privacy while doing so? This is one of those questions where I simply do not have the legal background to form an answer. It’s a complicated mess. It’s cropped up before, and we’re still arguing about it.
This sort of thing affects the ability of the general public to report problems of all kinds — not just environmental damage but also animal cruelty. Photographs are some of the best evidence in these cases, and are vital to construction of an effective prosecution. Making it difficult for photographs or other recorded evidence to be admitted in court is a primary retaliatory response from organizations and individuals caught red-handed by that evidence. Generally, those interested in recording documentation in order to report issues are instructed to take photographs from a public road so they can avoid having the evidence dismissed amid counter-charges of trespassing. Well, somewhere above the level of your house or building, the area becomes “public access” again. How high does a plane need to be flying before it’s out of your curtilage (owned area or property)? Is Google Maps (which, notably, takes its “street view” photos from the public road, and its aerial photos from satellites) invading our privacy? By the way, here’s Google’s aerial picture of the packing plant (also, notably, capturing a Very Red River).
It’s kind of important that we answer questions like these, partly because more people are getting access to the kind of technology which lets you fly camera-enabled model planes, but also because companies are using this “privacy” defense to attempt to pass laws preventing people from photographically documenting issues.