Drones in US Airspace – More Invasion of Privacy

February 20, 2012

News, Politics, Technology

An article in today’s (2.18.12) New York Times reported on the newest threat to privacy and personal liberties:

A new federal law, signed by the president on Tuesday, compels the Federal Aviation Administration to allow drones to be used for all sorts of commercial endeavors — from selling real estate and dusting crops, to monitoring oil spills and wildlife, even shooting Hollywood films. Local police and emergency services will also be freer to send up their own drones.

But while businesses, and drone manufacturers especially, are celebrating the opening of the skies to these unmanned aerial vehicles, the law raises new worries about how much detail the drones will capture about lives down below — and what will be done with that information.

As I have written before, it takes two to tango, and the positive public reaction to these drones, focusing on the good they will do – as above, tracking oil spills, fires, drought, etc. in a cost-effective way in a straitened economy – will make their use for unauthorized government surveillance easy.  Here is an example of how delighted drone users are:

The possibilities for drones appear limitless. Last year, Cy Brown of Bunkie, La., began hunting feral pigs at night by outfitting a model airplane with a heat-sensing camera that soared around his brother’s rice farm, feeding live aerial images of the pigs to Mr. Brown on the ground. Mr. Brown relayed the pigs’ locations by radio to a friend with a shotgun.

He calls his plane the Dehogaflier, and says it saves him time wandering in the muck looking for skittish pigs. “Now you can know in 15 minutes if it’s worth going out,” said Mr. Brown, an electrical engineer.

From pigs, to our bedrooms.

What’s more, the bands playing the music for the tango are the courts, which in the past have been strong supporters of the Patriot Act and other laws designed, at least on the surface, to keep the country secure:

American courts have generally permitted surveillance of private property from public airspace. But scholars of privacy law expect that the likely proliferation of drones will force Americans to re-examine how much surveillance they are comfortable with.

“As privacy law stands today, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy while out in public, nor almost anywhere visible from a public vantage,” said Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. “I don’t think this doctrine makes sense, and I think the widespread availability of drones will drive home why to lawmakers, courts and the public.”

That’s not all.  Nanotechnology, the science of miniaturization, has already produced mini-flying machines, bug-sized winged robots which can fly almost anywhere undetected.  While the courts may eventually slow the advances of drone spying, it will be almost impossible to control nano-drones.  They can buzz in and out of houses, cars, bars, libraries with no more notice than a pesky fly.  And in the event that someone swats one and it falls into their beer, Homeland Security can say, “Oops.  Sorry.  Just a little off-course”.  From an article from Cornell Chronicle Online:

Studying the flight mechanics of the pesky fruit fly is helping scientists develop small “flying robots,” which are raising important questions about the risks and benefits of emerging technologies to society,” said Cornell Professors Itai Cohen and Bruce Lewenstein, at the Sept. 13 Science Cabaret, before an enthusiastic, standing-room only crowd of all ages, at Delilah’s on Cayuga, in downtown Ithaca.

“When it comes to locomotion … at the moment, we’re far from having a technology that beats what these animals can do,” said Cohen, associate professor of physics.

To get closer, his research group uses high-speed cameras to collect flight data from fruit flies and then generates computer simulations of fly flight. These data and simulations, he said, are used to break down each component of wing motion that allows flies to hover, propel and navigate themselves through space.

Cohen also studies microscopic fly body structures that make this type of flight possible, such as a structure that is essentially a microscopic “fly gyroscope” — the so-called haltere senses body rotation and allows the fly to stabilize and control its flight. Without these halteres, fruit flies are incapable of flight, he said.

I can just imagine the commercial sales pitch: “Don’t let rodents invade your home.  Let NanoFly help you out.  Newly designed NanoFly can spot rat droppings in the most out-of-reach corners of your basement, and you can take action.  Don’t waste a minute.  Call 1-800-555-1212 now!”

As with any government surveillance of American citizens, it needs a cover.  It needs a reasonable commercial use that interests sellers; and a compelling retail interest on the part of consumers.  “Cookies are great”, say both Amazon and the consumer delighted to see an ad tailored precisely to his taste pop up on the website.  “Cookies are great”, says the government, happy to know exactly what you buy, from whom where, and when.

The point is, the invasion of privacy by government is gradual but progressive; and at each step of the way, it has the explicit or tacit agreement from us.  We like cookies because they help us save time shopping, and we love NanoFly because it can find stuff.  And today’s courts, as interested in protecting commercial interests as they are individual liberties, grease the wheels.

Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus, which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog, http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com.

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4 Comments on “Drones in US Airspace – More Invasion of Privacy”

  1. Thom Geiger Says:

    If a government or an agency of one wants to move something into mainstream acceptance, that something needs to be wrapped in something of immediate social importance, such as fighting terrorism, fighting child abuse or a similar cause.
    There was a time, years ago, when government interception of US postal mail, listening in on phone calls of US citizens, or entering a citizen’s home without a warrant were unacceptable.
    Today, in the era of smart phones, tweets and online chats, social networking and email, when facing a move by a government agency to circumvent limits on government in the US Constitution, the average citizen walking the street today says “As long as you’re not doing anything wrong, why would [this new method of privacy intrusion] be a problem?”
    News out today; Two Canadian universities sign outrageous email copyright monitoring contract
    The universities of Western Ontario and Toronto have signed a deal with Access. Copyright that allows for surveillance of faculty correspondence, unjustified restriction to copyrighted works and two million dollars in fees that will be passed along to students.
    The agreement reached last month with the licensing agency includes provisions defining e-mailing hyperlinks as equivalent to photocopying a document, an annual $27.50 fee for every full-time equivalent student and surveillance of academic staff email….

    “These two universities threw in the towel prematurely on the copyright battle,” said Turk. “We call on other post-secondary institutions not to follow their example of capitulating to Access Copyright. It’s time to stand up for the right to fair and reasonable access to copyrighted works for educational purposes..


  2. Raider Says:

    Thom, I agree with you 100%. It’s amazing how many rights have been given up by the public over the last few years. We really can’t say the government took them. Basically, a small group of people just suggested the government should have certain new powers and the vast majority of the lemmings begged the government to expand it’s powers in the name of safety and security. Anyone who dares to stand-up and challenge these new powers are labeled a trouble maker, criminal or accused of aiding terrorism.

    The Fourth Amendment no longer has any meaning. The government no longer has to have probable cause to conduct searches. It is sufficient for the government to find the criminal activity and then used that as the reason for doing the search. It is so bad that, failure to give your consent to a search is now probable cause. The public now believes that if you refuse to consent to a search, you must be hiding something.


  3. Thom Geiger Says:

    The US Supreme Court has recently judged that it isn’t a violation of the Fifth Amendment for LE or the government to force a suspect to give up passwords to encrypted files, computer hard drives or storage media, using the product of such compelling to indict and convict the suspect. I find that extremely disturbing and troubling. I also find the willingness of today’s citizens to accept government intrusion into every aspect of their lives, from email to postal mail, from internal body scans to surveillance drones over their homes, eavesdropping on phones calls (cellular and land line) under the pretense of national and personal security, equally disturbing.
    What has happened to us? While businesses, citizens and even the White House itself called for (and got) the defeat of SOPA and PIPA bills in Congress, the US government negotiated and signed the ACTA treaty in secrecy. A treaty that directly contradicts and offends every US Constitutional mandate on due process. Why is it that civil liberties watchdogs in Europe are calling for the EU to refuse the treaty and the official EU advocate for the treaty itself resigned in disgust at seeing the final product of those secret negotiations.
    Never would most of us have thought it possible as recently as ten years ago that the US government would find a way to circumvent the Constitutional right to due process through one-world trade agreements and treaties like ACTA. Few of our current politicians would have been elected if we had known that. I intend to do my part to try and undue this damage in the next election.
    BTW, The author of the failed SOPA bill, Lamar Smith, is trying to pass another internet tracking bill that would require ISPs to store user IP numbers, web search information, credit card information and web site visits for two years. But as long as we’re not doing anything wrong, we have nothing to worry about. Right?


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