Today’s private investigators seem to have it pretty easy compared to those of the past — cell phones, security cameras, and social media accounts are often used to obtain evidence for investigations. Gone are the days when private eyes had to flip through physical documents and phone directories, or find the location of someone with an actual map. And now, thanks to the advancements in drone technology, some investigators are opting to do away with physical surveillance.
A drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is a remote controlled aircraft. Although they have been around for several years, flying personal UAVs is a relatively new hobby. These small crafts have been all over the media lately, even earning the endorsement of Martha Stewart. Like Stewart, many people use drones to take beautiful aerial photos. The market for drones is constantly expanding, and tech companies are keeping pace. Some drones can record a live feed, detect heat, or are small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand. Others can fly four several hours at a time, scanning entire cities in a day.
Due to their discreet nature, private eyes have begun using drones to catch cheating spouses or dishonest employees. Instead of observing someone on foot for hours, investigators can use a drone to get a bird’s eye view of a suspect and collect video evidence. Using a drone is also safer for an investigator and are cheaper than chartering a plane or helicopter. A recent New York Post article featured a private investigator whose specialty is drones. According to the article, the investigator had to use a drone to record evidence of insurance fraud instead of physically surveying the suspect’s property for fear of being shot.
Because of their invasive capabilities, many are questioning the ethics of drone usage, including U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. Schumer recently called for federal regulations on drones, even going as far as proposing a ban on drone usage by private investigators. The idea of anyone being able to purchase a surveillance drone and using it to record whomever and wherever they want is fairly unnerving. The use of personal drones is uncharted territory, filled with flimsy guidelines and little regulation. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits the flying of UAVs for commercial use or payment. Drones are also not permitted to fly over heavily urban areas, and must alert control towers if they fly too close to an airport (FAA Website). Even so, investigators like the one featured in the Post article are still flying their drones.
Should we start expecting to see drones tailing us as we walk down the street? Probably not.
For now, most investigators are opting to stay on the ground and stick to their tried-and-true surveillance techniques. If evidence is gathered illegally, it may lose its value in court, and a private investigator could lose their credibility.