"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Drones in US Airspace–More Invasion of Privacy

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 the 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.

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