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Restricting Drones Before Use of the Technology for Total Surveillance Becomes Normal

Screen shot from PBS NOVA’s “Rise of the Drones” documentary

The movement to restrict drone use by law enforcement, colleges, universities, government agencies, businesses and private individuals is having an impact because those behind it are concerned about what the world will be like in the future and not what it is like now. Those raising concerns about drones are focused on what a future world where drones engage in wholesale surveillance and dominate United States airspace could be like. They recognize the time to have lawmakers take action is now, not later when the drone industry has fully grown and become a fixture in American industry and a special interest that holds political leaders captive.

All of which is why this editorial from The Economist deserves attention. As evidenced by the cartoon showing a drone overlooking an older gentleman reading Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the board of editors does not share the same fears of civil liberties advocates. They are coolly and somewhat glibly dismissive of concerns people have because the world of which advocates are afraid does not exist yet.

…Their fears are centred on the prospect of surveillance. Since drones can be far cheaper to buy than helicopters—tens of thousands of dollars, as against a few million—the worry is that cameras will be sent up into the sky far more frequently. Even if they are not on a deliberate spy mission, they may capture incidental footage that leads to an investigation, such as evidence of marijuana plantations. Still, at least in Mesa County, the drones have been used for search and rescue efforts and photographing crime scenes. “We’re not spying on everybody,” says Mr Miller. “We haven’t done a single surveillance mission.”

In any case, it may not be so easy for a police department to perform round-the-clock surveillance. Their drones are much less sophisticated than military types like Predators, which can remain aloft for 40 hours at a height of 25,000 feet or 8,000 metres (although the Department of Homeland Security has purchased ten Reapers, a new version of the Predator, for border patrols.) The FAA specifies that drones used by public-safety agencies must weigh 4.4lb (2 kilograms) or less, which can be increased to 25lb if the operator is judged proficient. And they are governed by strict rules in the air. They cannot fly higher than 400 feet and must remain within the line of sight of the operator… [emphasis added]

The entire argument for downplaying fears rests upon the present day. It conveniently ignores the rapid advancement of technology and proliferation of drones. But, this seems like a view that may be common.

Police are not engaged in surveillance missions because they have been effectively stigmatized. They have been stigmatized because the law is largely silent on the issue of drone surveillance. According to Laura Donohue, a Georgetown Law School professor, the Fourth Amendment does not contemplate the use of drones for continuous surveillance. The Fourth Amendment was developed under the presumption that public space would be an open field, and, when people are in public space, they would lose an expectation of privacy. It is next to impossible under current understandings of the law to apply the Fourth Amendment to the use of drones. Many understand this and that is why there is this growing fervor to control drone use.

Dion Nussenbaum of the Wall Street Journal reports, “The biggest immediate growth potential comes from the estimated 18,000 law enforcement agencies, who could use them for everything from searching for hikers lost on mountain trails to tracking suspects in urban neighborhoods.” Manufacturers expect “demand for drones to grow and they are positioning themselves for a sharp rise in domestic uses.”

“The U.S. is a very large and extremely fragmented market opportunity,” said Steven Gitlin, vice president of investor relations for AeroVironment Inc.,AVAV -0.61% a California company that makes a variety of drones, including one designed to look like a small bird.

AeroVironment says its primary focus with U.S. law enforcement lies with a surveillance drone called the Qube, which weighs about five pounds, costs about $50,000 and is designed to help quickly get overhead views of dangerous situations.

PBS NOVA’s “Rise of the Drones” project showed the advancement of technology is occurring rapidly and there are multiple startups and universities that engaged in research and development of drones that will make total surveillance easier. For example, Appareo Systems of Fargo, North Dakota, is engaged in efforts to shrink the size of drones:

BAE Systems has created ARGUS drones (a fitting name since Argus was a 100-eyed all-seeing Greek god). The camera in the drone has a resolution of 1.8 billion pixels. The technology makes it possible to identify people by their movements or the clothes they’re wearing. Something as small as six inches on the ground can be seen. It can shoot one million terabytes of video a day or five thousand hours of footage. With the technology, one can go back to see what happened four days, two hours and four minutes ago. Any agency using an ARGUS drone can track all residents of a single area and archive all the information to map out and predict where those people will be each and every day.

Is it possible for technology to advance in such a way that the ability of it to fight crime is seen as more important than its effects on civil liberties? Yes, now, video cameras or closed-circuit television (CCTV) have become ubiquitous. It is now incredibly difficult to argue for controls on surveillance camera use, but video cameras were not always a common fixture on or inside buildings in American society.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned in 2002:

…Fears of terrorism and the availability of ever-cheaper cameras have accelerated the trend even more. The use of sophisticated systems by police and other public security officials is particularly troubling in a democratic society. In lower Manhattan, for example, the police are planning to set up a centralized surveillance center where officers can view thousands of video cameras around the downtown – and police-operated cameras have proliferated in many other cities across America in just the past several years…

The group believed increased reliance on video cameras would make criminal and institutional abuse easier, discriminatory targeting more possible and voyeurism increasingly likely. The same fears exist today with surveillance drones.

In nine states, legislation to restrict drone use has been proposed. On the federal level, Rep. Ted Poe and Rep. Zoe Lofgren have introduced legislation in Congress to prohibit warrantless drone surveillance.

It does not matter if drones can be used for search and rescue, agriculture, firefighting or other benign purposes. That does not negate the fact that they are likely to be used for total surveillance if no controls are put in place. In Iraq, “unmanned aircraft monitored Baghdad 24/7, turning the entire city into the equivalent of a convenience store crammed with security cameras,” greatly angering Iraqis. They were used to “track bombers back to their hideouts.” If local, state and federal governments can normalize their use, they will be used to this extent in American society.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."