It's dark and the headlights can hardly keep up with the twists and turns in the hillside road. The driver nervously tries to keep two hands on the wheel, while attempting to survey the sky above for signs of the drone flying overhead, snapping pictures every second.
Sound like a scene out of a spy thriller? This could be the new reality in the Hollywood Hills in the not too distant future -- maybe even tomorrow.
The reports of TMZ's application to use aerial drones have been roundly denied by the celebrity gossip site and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but that's only a small slice of the story. TMZ might not have its eyes on a drone (yet) but they aren't alone.
And, it's not illegal.
In fact, Congress has mandated that the FAA open U.S. air space to unmanned aerial drones by fall of 2015. We'll inch incrementally closer in May next year, when the skies will open in unrestricted, non-military airspace within select markets. Drones weighing less than 55 pounds will be permitted -- with the rules about who can fly them, where and why still under development.
These drones are not exclusively for law enforcement or national security. They could theoretically be used for news gathering, photography and, in that strange intersection of celebrity, news and photography -- by paparazzi. There is even a Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
We think of drones as the military grade Predators we see in war reports, huge and costly. They are seven feet tall and over 40 feet across, weighing 1,100 pounds empty (up to 2,250 pounds loaded) and cost over $4 million each.
But the drones we are talking about are less sophisticated -- and the monetary payoff will be even greater. The Seattle Police Department is attempting to use a 4 foot drone, costing less than $80,000 each.
For reference, a single photo of a celebrity can easily demand up to seven figures under the right (read: wrong for the celebrity) circumstances.
It would be naïve to think that this is a paranoid fantasy.
The profit motive alone means all the hedges, gates and walls no longer give a celebrity privacy. In my book, Where's My Fifteen Minutes?, I list the 10 Commandments of PR. Number seven reads: There is no wall between public and private. Now, there may not be a ceiling, roof or canopy, either.
There is a certain irony to the situation. A nip slip, sex tape or hacked cell phone nude can boost a career (and even created a few). A few well-known personalities I've worked with over the years love to believe they can manipulate the tabloid media. They try to stay on friendly terms and even leak information about themselves to paparazzi and gossip editors.
In the end, I can tell you that the profit motive will be the only real criteria for running any embarrassing materials. A juicy photo is a juicy photo and means circulation, ratings, shares and page views, no matter if the person was friendly to tabloids in the past. When the paparazzi were convinced that Britney Spears was ducking in and out of her house a few years ago, they set up road blocks and searched cars passing by her (then) gated residence.
It's all about the money.
Additionally, it seems that fame is coming to younger and younger people. The same naiveté that makes them compelling young stars also means they may not fully comprehend the impact of their actions to themselves, their families and the many, many professionals that stand behind and support their careers.
The expectation of privacy for any celebrity has always been a tricky thing. The cameras and public interest make their careers, but living in the spotlight 24/7 is not healthy. It's one reason stars like to drive themselves when there is no red carpet. Their cars are one of the few places that affords them any sense of control and ability to speak freely.
This is only an illusion, though. Ask Justin Bieber. In fact, a high speed chase between the young singer and a photographer -- with speeds reaching 100 miles per hour -- resulted in California's virtually ignored paparazzi law being ruled unconstitutional. How much easier would it be to sit in front of a computer with a camera attached to a tiny flying device and see what you can find?
Everyone has a right to privacy and basic human dignity. Everyone. Services like Reputation.com can provide high-tech tools to protect the famous and mitigate negative impact over the long run. But we need to enforce existing privacy laws and strengthen others with an eye towards safety, security and privacy.
But keep that other eye on the lookout above.