Senators, law enforcement officials, and assorted experts attended a judiciary hearing yesterday to discuss the implications of drones in U.S. airspace.
Right now drones aren't a part of everyday life for most Americans, but that's changing with 81 organizations--including government agencies, police departments, and universities-- cleared to fly robots in the U.S. and more expected down the line. In 2015, the Federal Aviation Authority plans to allow the first commercial use of drones in the United States. That might sound scary to people worried about a drone flying overhead and—legally—snapping pictures of them in their backyard sunning in their birthday suit. Thing is, that future has already arrived.
University of Washington School of Law Professor Ryan Calo, a witness at the hearing, put it this way: drones are "basically flying smartphones." What he means is that drones build on what our smartphones already do: they take pictures, they track locations, they spy. The biggest difference is that they do these things in the sky. So when we talk about drones, what we're really talking about is privacy—privacy that we've already sacrificed.
That's not to suggest that the proliferation of drones doesn't introduce significant challenges. Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) speculated about a mosquito-sized drone with a battery life of days. He assumed it was some kind of distant-future prospect. Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project Electronic Privacy Information Center, corrected him: such a drone already exists. "I'd hate to see something like that in the hands of an adolescent boy," Franken replied with an impish grin. Then he paused just long enough to make sure everyone got the joke before catching himself: "I don't know what I mean by that."
Stepanovich imagined a different kind of threat: facial recognition software working in tandem with drones, creating a world where true privacy is impossible. The separate technologies behind drones and facial recognition software have both experienced tremendous growth and improvement over the past decade. Combine the two, and you've got a robot that can pick people out of a crowd.
Again, though, smartphones already have similar capabilities. Facebook automatically recognizes faces, and probably has the world's largest facial recognition database. Robots that automatically tag faces sound new and scary, but if you replace "robots" with "that one drunk guy at a party who keeps taking pictures," we're already living that dystopia. And don't get me started about the horrifying things teenage boys have already done with technology.
Safety was another big issue raised at the hearing. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) asked about hobbyists modifying drones to carry and use a weapon. How people use new technology for harm is a pretty standard fear—and not an unfounded one. To continue the "cellphone with wings" parallel: cell phone bomb detonators already exist. While it's worth acknowledging the possibility of a weaponized commercial drone in the United States, the country already has at least 310 million already-weaponized weapons.
So how do we regulate drones to ensure safety and privacy? Technology always moves way, way faster than the law. Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, likened today's drone laws today to where we were with the internet 50 years ago. (And internet law still has a ways to go.) The trick, Stepanovich says, is to make drone laws as technology-agnostic as possible. Just as internet law doesn't particularly care about the browser people use to access the internet, drone law shouldn't be overly focused on how the machines get in the air but what they do while they're there. Stepanovich also floated the idea of putting checks on cops (who already use drones and will probably use them even more in the future). Drone-equipped law enforcement agencies should be required to get a warrant to search private property, she suggested--just as they would if they walked through someone's front door.
Beyond that, there were few concrete solutions proposed at the hearing. But at least the right questions are being asked.
Domestic drone usage is ill-conceived, elitist, and end-runs our inherent Constitutional protections.
Here are two (2), very well-produced, videos that anchor my points:
Emmy Award-winning newscaster Shad Olson’s ‘The Great Drone Debate’, featuring US Senator John Thune (7:41):
Here’s a mind-blowing, well-done animated short that really captures our collective angst that if the road to perdition is paved with good intentions, then domestic drones are a superhighway to an Orwellian panoptic gulag (3:22):
For national security purposes, Americans are already subject to warrantless wiretaps of calls and emails, the warrantless GPS “tagging” of their vehicles, the domestic use of Predators or other spy-in-the-sky drones, and the Department of Homeland Security’s monitoring of all our behavior through “data fusion centers.”
America’s promise has always been the power of the many to rule, instead of the one. Ungoverned drone usage, particularly domestically, gives power to the one.
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I am trying to get a report written outlining laws the general public wishes to be put in place regarding drones. The plan is at least to ban the use of armed drones on US soil, as well as require warrants to be able to use drones to spy on someone, and finally make detailed operator records mandatory. Please let me know if you have expertise in this area or would like to help.
An today article\link to read:
"...The U.S. government is expanding a cybersecurity program that scans Internet traffic headed into and out of defense contractors to include far more of the country's private, civilian-run infrastructure..."
I'm actually not that worried about the authorities using drones, although there are obviously some risks involved in that too. There are laws and regulations that say what the authorities can, and cannot do.
However, what gives me the real creeps, is that a time will come in the not so distant future (5 years, max) when drones and drone "swarms" will become so cheap and technologically sophisticated that everyone and their dog can afford and operate them. That's when the real "fun" will begin. If you can call it that...
While the authorities don't have any particular incentive to screw some random individual who has not committed any particular crime or misdemeanor, there are scores and scores of other people out there who do, and will find all kinds of nefarious, nasty and criminal uses for this technology.
This is really a kind of a nightmare scenario.
In my opinion the real discussion is not if the authorities should be allowed to use drones. They already do, and that's that. The rest is just regulation.
The real threat comes from civilian uses of this technology. While I can quickly think of at least 10 useful uses, I can also think of another 10 that range from nasty to downright dangerous.
This is something that is worth extremely careful consideration, because otherwise we might soon find ourselves in the proverbial creek without a paddle.