How to Defend Your Home Against the Prying Eyes of UAVs

If you want protection from privacy intrusions by private UAV pilots, don't go all Annie Oakley on your neighbor's quadcopter like this guy; that's super illegal in most American cities. Instead, try these simple means of dissuasion. You'll definitely look like a bit of a loon, but that's just the price of freedom. And/or paranoia.

The Current States of US Drone Legislation

Though the US military has been utilizing UAVs since the late 1950s, the technology has quickly gained popularity in the private sector over the last decade. As such, the laws governing who can fly what (and when) are a patchwork of overlapping state and federal statutes that vary widely depending on where you are.


As Steve Fogle, a partner at Jackson Walker LLP, summarized on his firm's blog:

At the federal level, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has placed a blanket restriction on the commercial use of UAVs until September of 2015 while it considers guidelines for the safest, most positive and unrestricted use of UAVs. The FAA is also considering test sites across the country to evaluate the potential hazards and develop guidelines for the incorporation of UAVs into the national airspace by September 2015. In the meantime, under the current FAA guidelines, the use of a UAV for a commercial purpose is prohibited. A noncommercial UAV may only be flown during daylight hours, at an altitude of below 400 feet and using only human eyesight direction. No binocular navigation or remote controlled piloting is permitted. These FAA restrictions greatly limit the range and utility of the UAV.

At the state level, legislatures in over half the states have begun to consider legislation to address the use of UAVs in their jurisdictions and/or to limit the safety and privacy concerns raised by UAVs. A few states, such as Florida, Idaho, Montana, Tennessee and Virginia, have already passed UAV legislation under titles such as "Unwarranted Invasion of Privacy or Personal Surveillance" or "Protecting Against Unwarranted Surveillance." The purposes for such regulation appear to be not only to protect public safety and governmental interests, but also to guard the privacy interests of citizens while allowing for beneficial uses such as looking for a lost child, managing a disaster zone, or reporting on newsworthy events.

Other states, such as Washington, have outlawed drone surveillance of individuals outright, unless you're a member of law enforcement and have a valid search warrant and probable cause. Though a select number of states like Louisiana specifically regulate private UAS use, and the FAA itself has issued guidance on private drone use, most jurisdictions still rely on the FAA's Model Aircraft guidelines, which stipulate the aircraft not fly above 400 feet or within 3 miles of an airport for non-commercial flights. For a complete listing of state statutes regarding UAV flights, head over to the ACLU. In short, most laws currently on the book are there primarily to legislate the actions of law enforcement, not your neighbor, which means you'll have to do so yourself.

Blind Them With Science

image: Sean Lema

First off, there's not much you can do about your neighbor who's legally flying a drone, short of shooting it out of the sky (which, remember, is probably illegal and definitely super dangerous). Jamming devices—those that actively block radio, GPS, cellular, or Wi-Fi signals—are highly illegal in the US and will get you in just as much hot water with the police as wildly firing buckshot into the night sky. So if you can't sever the command link or bring down the UAV itself, your best remaining option is to interfere with its imaging payload. That's actually a surprisingly easy task to accomplish—all you need to do is give the camera something sparkly to look at. Something a little too sparkly.

A camera's CCD works much like the human eye: Incoming light stimulates specific cells or pixels which register the wavelength and pass that information along as an electrical signal. That means that, just like a human eye, one can either temporarily or permanently blind a camera by projecting more light than the sensor can handle. For conventional sensors that record visible light, a well-aimed low-powered laser pointer beam should be enough to temporarily knock an airborne camera offline.

Be warned, however, the FAA does not look kindly upon people firing lasers into the sky, so you'd better be damn well sure your aim is true. Otherwise you'll soon find men in suits knocking at your door. Of course, if you're going to run the risk of incarceration for accidentally blinding passing airline pilots, you might as well go all out, get yourself a Wicked Spyder and blow a hole clear through the offending camera—maybe the UAV itself—like a one-man HEL MD.


Or, better yet, install a laser shield on your property like the one guarding Roman Abramovich's multi-million dollar mega-yacht from the paparazzi. Who says you have to be a multi-kagillionaire to afford privacy? Oh right, the price tag. Still, it's probably cheaper than hiring Alec Baldwin to stand on a ladder and swat at passing UAVs with a broom—though not nearly as fun to watch.

Infrared cameras are even easier to defeat. Because they're designed to work in low light environments, it takes an exceedingly small amount of energy to overwhelm their sensors. Plus, people can't see infrared, which means you'll be able to deploy the following defenses without anyone being the wiser: Very simply, line the awnings, overhangs, window and door frames of you home with strips of infrared LEDs. Your house will look the same to human eyes, but will glow like the white hot indignant rage of a thousand spied-upon suns to an IR camera. And nothing says you can't equip your clothing with them as well.


Give 'Em the Old Razzle Dazzle

Even if you'd rather not treat the neighborhood to a nightly laser light show in the name of personal privacy, you still have a few effective options—albeit much more obvious and far less high-tech.


Since IR cameras can "see" the thermal radiation (aka heat) emitted by your body just like the Predator, you can fool them the same way Arnold Schwarzenegger did: Cover your house in mud. That's right, slather it on nice and thick. Make sure to keep it moist at all times—it's the water's evaporation that masks the home's heat signature. Although I suppose simply upgrading your home's insulation and lining your windows with mylar foil (which appears opaque on IR imaging) would work just as well. Yes, granted, doing so will make your house look like an indoor pot farm, thereby attracting more attention, but at least nobody's drone will be able to see inside.

Similarly, to avoid surveillance on the go, a number of companies have begun producing anti-IR garments; metalized fabrics similar to space blankets woven into overcoats, ponchos, hoodie—even panties. They won't cover all of you, but it's better than nothing.


"KISS" Facial Recognition Goodbye

Don't think that simply painting your house in mud and mylar will be enough. To ensure a UAS won't be able to recognize you even if it sees your body heat, you'll need to paint your face as well. No, really, they did it back in WWI to hide submarines—it's called dazzle camouflage and is designed to break up an object's silhouette against the background, not unlike how the stripes of a zebra herd blur the outlines of individual members. And because modern facial recognition algorithms use the relative position of prominent facial features to identify a person, all you need to do is artificially enhance one or two of those features and the algorithm bricks itself.


As Jillian Mayer illustrates in her CV Dazzle tutorial, you're going to wind up looking like an avant-garde face-painter from the county fair licked a sheet of LSD and then went to town on your face, but if you don't want to wear the IR LED hat this is what you're left with.

Or, you know, you could just talk to your neighbor about your concerns with his UAS usage, like an adult, and politely ask that he not surveil your property—lest you break out your boomstick and buckshot. [ACLU - JW - Snallabolaget - The Breeze - WaPo - Dismagazine - FAA 1, 2]


Top Image: Mike Flippo