Unmanned aircraft, or drones, are inhabiting civilian airspace with increasing frequency. Though they're not ubiquitous yet, the coming years portend a sea change in our skies as well as in our lives, as people attempt to reconcile the benefits of drone technology with our safety and right to privacy.
Formally called unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft systems, drones were originally developed for military use and come in all sizes. Some have the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and fly above 60,000 feet; others are the size of a fist and only fly at low altitudes. Because they can be equipped with a wide array of cameras and sensors and are cost-effective in terms of financial and human risk, drones are becoming highly sought-after prizes for government and private institutions.
Law enforcement’s interest in drones is not surprising. Drones can assist with search and rescue operations, provide aerial photographs of traffic accidents or crime scenes and help officers safely pursue suspects from a distance. Unmanned vehicles may be equipped to deploy thermal-imaging sensors, intercept cell phone calls, sniff Wi-Fi networks and use facial recognition software. In other words, the same qualities that may benefit law enforcement could have negative implications for our privacy. In the future, growers may feel the prying eyes of overzealous law enforcement in their gardens.
In Grand Forks County, N.D. sheriffs, with assistance from the University of North Dakota’s drone program, are looking into the various uses of unmanned aircraft. According to Sheriff Bob Rost, research has centered on instances involving lost children, chemical spills, and car accidents.
“Right now, we are in the process of setting up a group that deals with putting together policies and procedures governing the use of [drones],” he said. “As far as the criminal-type things, those are down the line.”
As Grand Forks sheriffs work out the details for drone applications, sheriffs in neighboring Nelson County already bear the distinction of having arrested the first American with the use of an unmanned vehicle. In June 2011, Rodney Brossart of Lakota, N.D. allegedly refused to return six cows that wandered onto his 3,000-acre farm. That led to a 16-hour standoff with sheriffs. Homeland Security provided a drone, which was used to determine Brossart’s whereabouts and whether or not he was armed. He was arrested without incident.
As it stands now, law enforcement agencies do not need a warrant to employ unmanned systems. Previous Supreme Court decisions have upheld that if a police helicopter flies over your home, what is visible to the naked eye can and will be used against you. However, privacy advocates worry that in the case of drones, police can literally see through walls, making them legal game-changers.
“Right now we are living in a time where privacy rights and constitutional rights, such as to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, hasn’t caught up to how rapidly technology is developing,” said Hope Amezquita, legislative counsel for the ACLU of Virginia. “I think that most people have that expectation that that type of technology isn’t being used to peer into their windows.”
The ACLU of Virginia is working with Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock) to draft legislation that would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using drones to gather evidence on suspects. Amezquita said the bill will be “pretty comprehensive,” including regulations on drone use and data collection, as well as public oversight.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been closely following the development of civilian drone use and its possible effect on privacy. Rebecca Jeschke, a digital analyst for the EFF, is most concerned about the potential of persistent surveillance and the collection and distribution of data.
“The way that digital storage is nowadays, you could create a pretty big database of information about a community and who goes where when,” she said.
Her unease is not as far-fetched as one might think. It was recently learned via a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the EFF that Ogden police in Utah sent a letter requesting FAA permission to fly a dirigible drone to conduct “nocturnal surveillance” of “high crime areas” in their search for “suspicious activity.” The FAA denied Ogden PD’s request, stating the dirigible would present an “unacceptable high risk” to public safety.
Law enforcement aside, there are other concerns for privacy, according to Jeschke. She cited instances in which information from tracking devices stuck to cars were used in divorce cases. Drones can reveal any manner of information on a spouse, which can later be used against them. Considering that there is a growing contingent of do-it-yourself drone enthusiasts, it is only a matter of time before private investigators, or nosy neighbors, have their own. The possibility may even exist for drones to assist unscrupulous personalities in discovering a grower’s operation and stealing their equipment and crop.
“There are all sorts of concerns about persistent surveillance, whether or not you think you are a target for law enforcement,” Jeschke said.
On the federal level, several bills have already been proposed to help curtail privacy violations, though they focus mostly on law enforcement. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) has written a draft bill that would require drone operators to inform the government of the data they are collecting. Two other bills—one by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and another by Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA)—would mandate that law enforcement agents obtain a warrant before drones are deployed. Though the bills are a “step in the right direction,” says the EFF on their official blog, the Paul and Scott bills both leave a “pretty big loophole” for national security issues, emergencies and border patrol that would allow drones to operate without Fourth Amendment restraint.
Despite the threat to our privacy, there are many benefits that drones can offer our society. Unmanned aircraft can provide firefighters with a bird’s-eye view of wildfires and arson investigations, as well as detect radiation in the event of a detonated dirty bomb or a Fukushima-type disaster. Academic institutions could also use drones for scientific research, such as tracking wildlife or recording soil erosion. The possibility exists too for farmers to monitor their crops with drones. Even the film industry may end up using them for aerial shots instead of airplanes or helicopters.
Outdoor growers can certainly find their own uses for drones. Imagine using your drone to search for new areas in the wilderness to plant crops, or to keep a watchful eye on those crops once they are planted, ensuring that common issues like depleted water supply, disease, pest invasions and man-made interference don't ruin all your hard work.
However, safety remains the greatest obstacle for drones and their proponents. Pushed by manufacturers and their lobbyists, Congress recently ordered the FAA to incorporate drones into its airspace by 2015. It is estimated that 30,000 of them may be in our skies by 2020. This race has some policy makers concerned about public safety, including the FAA. In its own congressional testimony, the agency has said the safety record of drones “warrants caution.”
Despite the FAA’s concerns, the push to get drones up in the air has continued. Since 2006, the agency has issued over 700 certificates granting special permission to fly unmanned aircraft. There are currently about 300 active certificates for government, military and academic institutions. With some exceptions, the FAA doesn’t permit drones to fly at night or over densely populated areas, and it restricts airspace and altitude.
Drone operations can, and do, go haywire. A recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting on drone safety stated that “crashes are common.” Because drone pilots peer through a computer screen to fly their craft, they lack the full visual range afforded traditional pilots. This increases the opportunity of crashes, which is why the FAA insists in most cases that pilots also be accompanied by a field observer who keeps an eye on the drone at all times.
Since 2004, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been operating Predator B drones along national borders. The CBP’s accident rate is more than seven times the average rate of manned vehicles, according to 2010 FAA congressional testimony. However, the CBP’s drone usage is still minimal, which presents a problem. As of 2010, the CBP’s total flight hours of 5,688 were well below the 100,000-hour standard the FAA typically uses to gauge safety data and accident rates. Still, there was concern.
“The limited safety and operational data available does not support expedited or full integration” into the airspace, FAA System Operations Services Vice President Nancy Kalinowski told Congress.
In the years to come, as safety issues are hammered out, drones will find a permanent place within our airspace. They will prove to be useful tools that can save lives and money, but not without a cost. As technology advances, privacy advocates will have their work cut out for them. The Air Force is currently developing drones that mimic birds and insects in appearance and movement. Some prototypes are as small as hummingbirds or dragonflies. Perhaps in the future, we may have to keep a sharp eye on what perches in our rose gardens.
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Friday, 11 January 2013