Wednesday, February 20, 2013

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a... drone?

by Sandra Parshall

If you’ve ever received a speeding ticket in the mail, accompanied by a picture of your vehicle, you know you’re being watched. But most of us have accepted the ubiquitous traffic cams and security cams because we see their value every time one of them is instrumental in the identification and arrest of a criminal.

But surveillance drones? These things are freaking out people from coast to coast. 

Undoubtedly the outcry is caused partly by bad associations: we hear the word drone and immediately picture a sinister, unpiloted aircraft that can be used for spying or for dropping bombs. The kind of drones U.S. police departments want to use are small, don’t fly very high, and are not armed. But they are made for watching people. Police want to use them for surveillance. Alarmed citizens imagine little machines hovering outside their windows, aiming a video camera inside the house.

All across the U.S., state and local governments are scrambling to answer these fears. At least a dozen states so far have either banned or restricted the use of drones by police or other government agencies.

The Seattle Police Department purchased two drones last fall, but widespread publicity about them brought a storm of public protest, and last week Mayor Michael McGinn ordered the police not to use the machines. The drones, which had never been deployed, are going back to the manufacturer.

One of Seattle's ill-fated drones
In spring of 2012, Virginia’s Republican governor said he thought police use of drones for surveillance would be a “great” thing. Now, less than a year later, the Republican-controlled state legislature has enacted a two-year moratorium on the use of the technology by law enforcement and government agencies in Virginia. The moratorium was supported (prepare to be astonished) by both the ACLU and the Tea Party.

The Charlottesville, VA, city council felt local restrictions were needed, although the city’s police don’t even have a drone and haven’t requested one. The city council has spelled out how the technology may and may not be used. If the police ever obtain a drone, it may be used for search and rescue, but not for surveillance of citizens. No evidence collected by a drone can be used in a criminal case in city courts.

Last year, Congress enacted a federal law making it easier for local law enforcement to purchase drones for domestic surveillance, and grants to cover the cost became available through the Department of Homeland Security. Now some members of Congress are trying to rein in their use because it may violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution: “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

When introducing the Preserving American Privacy Act, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said, “According to the FAA, by 2015, it will allow the use of drones nationwide, and by 2030, 30,000 drones will be cruising American skies – looking, observing, filming, and hovering over America. They will come whether we like it or not. We will not know where they are or what they’re looking at or what their purpose is, whether it’s permitted or not permitted, whether it’s lawful or unlawful, and we really won’t know who is flying those drones.”

In many cases, “who is flying those drones” will be individuals who bought them – starting at around $300 each – at Radio Shack or some other electronics retailer. Amazon has six pages of drones and drone accessories. You can control your personal drone with your iPhone or iPad or iPod. (I guess they have an app for that.) They come with interchangeable hulls for indoor as well as outdoor use and cameras that stream live video. They come in various sizes, but most personal drones are much smaller than those made for police and weigh less than five pounds.
The Parrot drone

I can see the usefulness of drones in search and rescue operations. In wilderness areas they could save the lives of lost hikers or children by locating them more quickly than search parties on foot ever could. In autumn of 2011, anti-government protestors in Poland used a drone to track the movements of Warsaw police and military troops. 

But I’m not sure why police in the U.S. are so eager to acquire them for “surveillance” of citizens. A drone can’t be sent out on its own to follow somebody around wherever he goes. The machine has to be monitored and controlled remotely by a human. How high in the air would it be? Would it be visible from the ground? What’s to stop somebody from shooting it down? How easy would it be to maneuver in an area with power and utility lines, cell phone towers, tall buildings, and mature trees? 

The Dragonfly drone
It’s the use of drones by private citizens that’s going to cause trouble, though. Do you feel queasy at the thought of your neighbors – or someone who has a grudge against you – spying on you with a drone? How would you feel if video of a private moment in your life, recorded by a drone, showed up on YouTube? 

Aside from privacy issues, the use of this technology raises legal questions that will have to be answered. Private detectives gathering evidence for divorce or insurance fraud cases risk arrest for trespassing if they go on someone’s property without permission. Should they be allowed to use drones to peek through windows and take photos or record videos? If you saw a drone hovering above your property and you knocked it down – or shot it down – and destroyed it, would you be liable for the damage?

How much privacy are we entitled to in our daily lives? What kind of restrictions would you like to see on the use of personal drones?

While we’re on the subject of privacy, how do you feel about Google putting photos of your house on the internet? Here’s the Parshall Manse from the street and the air. 


I don’t care if the whole world knows what my house looks like, but seeing it on the internet is a little weird. Nobody trespassed onto our property to take these pictures (maybe the aerial shot was taken by a drone?), so is Google violating our right to privacy?

Where does the individual’s right to privacy end these days?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm not at all surprised the ACLU is weighing in against use of domestic drones. They always value the principle of civil liberties higher than any particular stand on any issue. Leigh Lundin, one of my blog brothers on SleuthSayers (my other blog), has recently written two posts about drones (2/6 and 2/13). He quoted some of the customer comments, filled with irony and black humor, on the drones you can buy on Amazon.

Sandra Parshall said...

They're marketed to game-lovers as toys for competitions, but I don't think games are what most people think of when they think of drones.

Steven M. Moore said...

Sorry...I couldn't resist a comment. There are drones of all sizes. I'm more scared of the ones that might be the size of a of these appears in Full Medical, my sci-fi thriller...fiction yes, but there are thoughts along these lines.
However, the ACLU's typical tactic of one-size fits all is stupid. "Domestic drones" might be an acceptable, cheap solution for border control against terrorism, drugs, illegal arms, and human smuggling. Drones have proven themselves in counterterrorism overseas. If you assume we're not going to sit around on our derrieres and let extremists blow us up willy-nilly, surgical strikes by drones and special forces are much better than tens of thousands of boots on the ground.
Asymmetric warfare must be met with asymmetric defenses.
I know this comment will spur some debate, but too many have put 9/11 and Oklahoma City out of their minds, along with drug cartels, arms smuggling, Newtown, Aurora, and other places of terrible violence. To do nothing is to admit defeat.

Sandra Parshall said...

I've seen photos of drones so small they fit on a fingertip. They look awfully fragile. One swat and they're out of commission.

JJM said...

If those drones are subject to the same sort of laws that pertain to searches and seizures, probable cause, wiretapping, etc., and if those laws are strictly enforced, I could accept them. Certainly Steven Moore's right (i.e. I agree with him) when he points out there are legitimate uses, as in border patrols.

Frankly, I'd be a lot more worried about drones in private hands. That's where the true mischief is going to come in.--Mario R.

Steven M. Moore said...

I guess it depends on whether we believe in government conspiracy theories. ;-) In my book, such a conspiracy existed, buried within the government. It made for a good story.
Yes, you can swat them if (1) you notice them and (2) you don't mind killing dragonfly-look-alikes (any PETA members here?).
Bottom line: it's more true every day that what used to be only the domain of governments (weapons, surveillance, cyber attacks, etc) is entering the private sector and empowering individuals to also do harm. It's a scary world.

Sandra Parshall said...

Steve, I'm a PETA member and I would have no problem swatting one of these things with a broom. I don't like the idea of spying on other people made easier. Private detectives collecting ammunition in a divorce case wouldn't have to prove they collected the pictures/video legally if the target is sufficiently afraid of having the evidence made public. Blackmailers could make use of these things. Pedophiles could spy on children with them. And teenagers -- OMG, the very thought of what they could do with them makes me cringe. Sarah Shaber said on Facebook that personal ownership should be outlawed, and I tend to agree, BUT -- if we let people own assault weapons, how can we justify outlawing a device that some people would argue is just a toy?

JJM said...

"Steve, I'm a PETA member and I would have no problem swatting one of these things with a broom."

(Frivolous answer) I think the better question might have been if anyone here was a really thorough-going Buddhist ...

" ... if we let people own assault weapons, how can we justify outlawing a device that some people would argue is just a toy?"

About the same reason as the military-style weapons: the potential for harm. Some idiot teenager just "playing a prank" flying such a drone catches one of his female classmates in a compromising situation -- nude sunbathing in her own back yard, one with high walls around it, say -- and posts the photo to the Internet. Trust me, that could end up ruining the girl's life just about as badly, as newspaper articles about this sort of situation (embarrassing photos on the 'net) suggest. Bad enough having to worry about an increasingly Big Brother government and the amount of info being collected on us for commercial purposes on the 'net, without having to worry about eyes in the sky everywhere.

Steven M. Moore said...

All good points (btw, I'm NOT against PETA...I was just making the point that maybe you can't tell the difference between a drone and a dragonfly). Nowadays, we have to walk through minefields trying to balance the good and the bad that technology brings us.
I think the tone here is the correct one, protection of privacy. Unfortunately, we don't have an amendment to this effect, but maybe we need one? It would have to be edited very carefully, because the Second Amendment seems to be given more breadth than it deserves, even by the Supreme Court.
Here's another scenario, Sandra, perhaps more a propos for a gang of mystery writers: The drone bug carries a bit of ricin through the victim's open window and deposits it on the cereal he's eating for breakfast. Could Sherlock Holmes figure that one out, especially in the case that the cereal is Rice Krispies? :-)