Chad J. Pomeroy


Privacy and property rights are tricky subjects for a variety of reasons. One reason is that they have a unique relationship with each other, and this Article focuses on one of those areas of intersection – that of air rights and invasion of privacy. This is a timely topic due the advent of drones, and this Article will argue that drone surveillance constitutes common law trespass and that any statute or regulation that permits such activity is in derogation of common law and so should be subject to particularly careful thought and consideration.

This is not as straightforward a thesis as one might perhaps think because both property and privacy rights have a murky past and have gone through iterative formulations as society has sought to achieve the right balance between the public and private spheres. Privacy has historically focused on expectations of privacy, and property rights have traditionally provided such expectations, but the legally recognized nature of each has not changed over time to keep pace with technological innovation. This has led to a situation where the kinds of rights and causes of action that have traditionally protected individuals no longer suffice in a variety of circumstances.

In particular, the use of drone technology to engage in sophisticated surveillance presents significant challenges our existing legal framework. Part I of this Article examines the history of privacy law in some detail, and Part II does the same with respect to the common law of airspace property rights. When these two areas of the law are examined in tandem, it becomes apparent that drone surveillance violates rights that society generally wants to protect and that society has historically protected. That protection, however, is now lacking. There is some reason for the failure of the law to keep up with this type of new technology, and Part III examines the historical “aircraft exception” that many may now believe justifies the law’s acquiescence in the face of drone surveillance. Ultimately, though, this Article concludes that this common law exception is not applicable to drones and that, as such, the law should adapt to protect the public from drone surveillance. Part IV concludes this analysis by making a number of recommendations that state and federal legislatures and various administrative agencies would do well to consider when passing laws and promulgating rules regarding drone technology.