[Review] People's perception of drones on Privacy and Security

November 13, 2018 ยท 8 minute read

Paper Review 13-11-2018

“Spiders in the sky”: Users Perception of Drones, Privacy and Security

V. Chang, P. Chundury, M. Chetty, University of Maryland, Princeton University, CHI2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems

Aims of the paper

The author’s of the paper look to specifically survey and summarise people’s (mainly the views of US citizens) views on drones, the affect they have on their personal privacy and the preconceived expectations of security and usage. This is with the view to help inform both drone industry and government on how to both more effectively market and design drones for consumers, and the types of rules and regulations required to ensure all people feel safe around drones. They note that this is particularly important with the increased use of drones in both the commercial and private spheres.

They achieve this by conducting an experiment with 20 participants in a laboratory setting with various drone related tasks to inform the discussion on drones. The researchers noted all the opinions, reactions, statements and thoughts of the participants during each of the tasks.

In this paper, they look to

  • Explain the reasoning behind their experiment design and procedures
  • Summarise and collate all the participant’s reactions from declared statements to physical reactions
  • Present solutions to user’s privacy and security concerns derived from the experiment

Paper Summary

The paper begins with an introduction providing reasoning for the study in that the FAA (Federal Aviation Association) have very little legislation with regards to drones and how the author’s want to better inform future policy making through the understanding of how users perceive drones, their purposes and capabilities. This is followed by a non-technical background detailing previous studies with drones in social settings. These include usage, capabilities, user interaction, privacy and security and regulation. Many of the social studies referenced previous perception studies from different countries, but made more note of previous American studies where there seems to be more of a negative attitude to drones compared to other countries. The rest of the paper then describes both the methodology and analysis of the study they ran.

Study details

A group of 20 students from the university ranging in age from 19 to 50 with an average of 22 were chosen out of a group of 53 to partake in the study. They were chosen with respect to an online survey which rated the user’s privacy protection, privacy concern, level of security behaviour. Checks where also done to ensure the user had never used a drone before and that there was a range of educational backgrounds. The group of 20 was split in half where one half interacted with a real drone during the tasks, and the other half interacted with a model non-flying drone ‘controlled’ (held and walked around the space) by a researcher. A model drone was chosen for the ‘control’ as it represents a realistic mental model of a drone.

In these separate groups, the following activities were conducted:

  • Initial Interview - Conducted in room with no drone present. Questions asked about privacy and security, previous drone knowledge, discussion on the ‘drone hovering over your house’ scenario and knowledge of FAA policies on drones. Following this, an FAA certificate is reviewed by the participant and they are asked to draw a drone to elicit their mental model for one.
  • Experiment 1: Drone Design and Surveillance - Eliciting initial reactions to the drones and their capabilities. Drone group was then recorded by the drone with no prior instructions given and footage broadcast to visible monitor. Non-drone participants had task demonstrated and explained to them. Reactions recorded.
  • Experiment 2: Physical Safety and Security - Drone physically approaches participant slowly while being recorded and asked ‘personal questions’. Comfort levels recorded.
  • Experiment 3: Researcher Controls Drone - Flight capabilities demonstrated to participants by researcher
  • Experiment 4: Participant Controls Drone - Participants execute specific actions on drone in sequence
  • Experiment 5: Data, Storage and Transmission - Drone group shown footage of them throughout the experiment from drone. Record reactions to seeing footage, angle of the recordings and also how the felt about the data storage and transmission and ownership of drone footage.
  • Exit Interview - Asked views on each of the tasks. Asked again about attitudes towards privacy, security and drones. Compensation of gift voucher given.

Study Analysis

There is a very thorough analysis of the recordings from the study presented in this section. The discussion is broken into many sections based on the experiments. Generally the feeling towards drones use in general is largely negative, the following ideals were found to be pervasive between participants of both groups:

  • Drones still seen as privacy invasive - Concerns for spying drones and recording without consent are immediate. Many participants begin by defining privacy in their answers to initial interview.
  • Fear of damage or injury from drones - Concern for injuries due to malfunction or mal-use, uncertainty if drones are carrying anything and air traffic problems. Also concern for drone effects on harming wildlife.
  • Accountability for drone owners and consent for recording - Concern for anonymous owners and proximity to people, buildings and wildlife.
  • Disclosure of personal information under drone surveillance - less comfortable when under drone surveillance, related to first point.
  • Positive perceptions of drones were less pronounced - Some perception based on use case. Surveillance w.r.t populace vs criminals.
  • Drone attributes make drones appear threatening - Drone designs, colours, size, sounds and audio-visual cues all need to be considered. They found the Parrot Drone threatening
  • Drone movements and physical security - Concerns on stability and malfunctions of the drone in normal flight and on unusual manoeuvres.
  • Clandestine data recording without proper feedback - Unknown camera location and orientation was concerning to many. Also lack of audio-visual cues on recording is wanted.

During the analysis many quotes directly from participants are referenced as well as proportional statistics from each group.


The authors suggest the three primary methods for solving some of the perception problems raised by the participants of the study:

  • Geo-Fencing using existing infrastructure - prevention of drone use around certain areas, also the suggestion of using Wi-Fi as a geo-fencing solution and drone alarm to give people more control.
  • Designated Spaces for Drones - Designated spaces for drone operators which will allow easy identification of drone and operator while protecting people from privacy and security concerns
  • Drone Design and Privacy and Security Perceptions - More thought required in form and appearance of drone to separate unfriendly and friendly drones.

They mention limitations to this study in terms of sample size and the use of indoor drones. They conclude that they found similar privacy concerns around drones but found many more negative drone perceptions compared to previous studies. They also found that effective drone design is equally important. They suggest future work should focus on implementation of the above solutions.

Paper Review

This was an interesting paper to read and very different in style to the technical papers I am used to. It does indeed highlight some of the issues that users have on the topic of drone privacy and security. However I am unconvinced that the paper provides useful insights that can be used to persuade the legislators and companies that deal with drones. It seems clear to me that many of the conclusions reached have already been noted by the community in various forms, e.g. drone design aspects affecting user perception was noted to have been found to be important by the human computer interaction community. Also despite the rather thorough participant checks, I am unconvinced that the sample chosen is representative of the wider community due to the small number of participants. It also seems to me that some of the experiments were going to provide negative views and outcomes towards drones. For example, who would not be worried if a drone kept creeping towards you in an enclosed environment! I am also dubious about the effectiveness of using the model drone and it seems that many of the reactions are glossed over as the reactions of the participants with the real drone are understandably more important.

On the other hand, from the data that was collected, the authors conducted an very thorough analysis where a lot of conclusions were drawn from the study results. The logic for these conclusions is well formed and is lead directly from collected observations and most of the commentary is un-opiniated from the author. It is worth noting, however, that a lot of quotes from participants are taken directly even though content is dubious. It is hard to know why the participant made such a comment. Some comments seem to have no base or come from pre-conceived notions, possibly from media which has been a large negative influence on people’s perceptions on robotics in general (for example the Terminator franchise). I believe that a deeper understanding of the subject’s viewpoint may be necessary to ascertain where they are coming from in their views of drones. A lot of the time I get the feeling that they are ‘making it up as they go along’ which is difficult to justify as a credible source. Although I suppose this does reflect reality in certain situations.

The conclusions drawn from the study are also reasonable, they do indeed solve the found problems using current technologies. However I cant help but notice that they are all reactionary solutions which may work in the short term and do not ask the question of how we can help people to directly perceive drones in a better way.

In writing style, the paper was well written and provided plenty of references of further reading. It was well structured with a very strong analysis (although the emphasis used is a bit odd at times). It did hit its aims as such, and I agree with its conclusions but it seems to merely echo previous works. However I suppose it does go to confirming previous held beliefs about public perception of drones.

I wouldn’t particularly recommend reading the paper as the findings I believe are fairly self-explanatory and well known.