Drones: Coming soon to a neighborhood near you!
The commercial use of drones in our domestic airspace is on the brink of becoming a reality. There are many new applications for these unmanned aircrafts that just might change the world. Innovative as this new technology is, it is causing some public uproar about privacy concerns. Many experts have weighed in on the discussion about the possible benefits of this new device versus our privacy rights and the threats posed against them.
In Mildred V. Jones’ article “Drones the sky’s the limit–or is it?” (2014), she talks of how drones have evolved from a military tool into a commercial one which shows great potential for progress in many different fields. For example, she mentions that farmers have shown interest in using drones to improve the management of crops and counting cattle. Environmentalists can use drones to track wildlife. Companies such as Domino’s Pizza, Amazon and Federal Express are experimenting with drones for new delivery techniques. Delivering vaccines to remote locations is an interest for some in the medical field. Drones are also being looked at for transportation uses like mapping unpaved roads or understanding traffic patterns and evaluating road conditions. Jones states that the labor market will add 100,000 jobs in manufacturing alone thanks to the addition of domestic drones. This will, in effect, influence our education system that is already preparing students for this new job market. She gives an example of the University of Nevada receiving a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Army to build drones that can detect gas leaks, radiation and other toxins and concludes, “The possibilities seem endless for drone technology and have given the cliche “the sky’s the limit” a new meaning in today’s technological world”, (p. 31).
Many other applications for drones have been mentioned in Theresa M. Payton and Theodore Claypoole’s book “Privacy in the age of big data” (2014), such as rescues, tracking fugitives, searching for missing persons, dropping aid to stranded victims as well as limiting poaching, thus supporting the idea that the possibilities are endless. Exciting as all of these applications are, Payton and Claypoole also stress the importance of protecting one’s privacy. They state that “The tool is not the problem, and it’s not going away.” (p. 119) They believe that we must lend a hand in protecting our own privacy by becoming knowledgeable about the new technology, what it is capable of and the tradeoffs that may be asked of us. “Some of those tradeoffs-privacy for convenience-could be softened by our own behavior or be reduced by legislation if we fight for it” they claim (p. xiv). In essence, they want to start a discussion on what drones could be used for both good and bad and how they should be regulated in order to maintain our safety and privacy.
This conversation is echoed in Rachel L. Finn and David Wright’s article “Unmanned aircraft systems: Surveillance, ethics and privacy in civil applications” (2012) They express that “Growth in this area has recently increased exponentially, particularly because of developments in lightweight construction materials, microelectronics, signal processing equipment and GPS navigation.” (p. 184) These unmanned aircraft systems, UASs as they are calling them, will have different capabilities in the civil sector based on their size. Although they will have many positive applications they can also be deployed for surveillance purposes such as policing and border patrol which give rise to civil liberty concerns. Finn and Wright argue that when used for surveillance the “usual suspects” , (the poor, people of color,and anti government protestors) are often targeted. They state that “despite the benefits to policing and border surveillance, the use of UAS technology raises safety, ethical and privacy concerns alongside this disproportionate targeting of already marginalised populations.” (p. 188) They talk of how law enforcement around the world are using these devices and how different agencies are seeking to assure people that they will not be spied on. The police are arguing that there is no difference between UASs and street cameras that have been in use for many years now. The problem with this is that there are few existing regulations in place, conceed Finn and Wright, stating that “Part of the difficulty in drawing up regulatory parameters for the use of UASs is that UAVs span an entire spectrum between model aircraft and manned aerial vehicles such as planes and helicopters” (p. 191). They cite the Fourth Amendment which protects citizens against unreasonable searches, observing that some of the privacy concerns could be covered by it if they are being used in public domains like the street cameras mentioned before; “However, [they believe] UAS surveillance that is covert, that uses attachments such as thermal imaging or that is used to monitor private spaces would require additional oversight mechanisms, such as search warrants or RIPA approval in order to be lawfully deployed” (p. 193).
Finn and Wright do not feel that current legislation or regulations adequately address the privacy problem, a sentiment that is reaffirmed in Robert Molko’s article “The drones are coming! Will the Fourth Amendment stop their threat to our privacy?” (2013). Molko claims that “ in the twenty-first century our privacy seems to have been eroded virtually to the point of nonexistence” (p. 1). He fears that if law enforcement are able to use drones then our privacy will be threatened even further. He questions whether the Fourth Amendment will be enough to protect our rights to privacy with technology moving so much faster than legislation. Because of the seriousness of these concerns he believes that the introduction of drones may be just what we need to bring privacy laws into the forefront but that “law enforcement’s use of drones will potentially create unresolved issues over the next ten years or longer, until the proper case reaches the Supreme Court” (1332). He suggests that “Until Congress acts, however, the Court should be able to continue protecting individual privacy from warrantless governmental drone surveillance by applying the reasonable expectation of privacy test, which will set the outer boundaries of permissible conduct under the Fourth Amendment” (1333).
Another credible agency that is watching out for our privacy rights is the ACLU. In their official report “Protecting privacy from aerial surveillance: Recommendations for government use of drone aircraft” (2011), by Jay Stanley and Catherine Crump, they maintain that “we need a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without bringing us a large step closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities” (p. 1). This report outlines protections that they feel will help secure our privacy in the future of domestic drones. The ACLU recommends usage restrictions, in that their use should be prohibited for mass surveillance. They suggest image retention restrictions, where images captured should not be retained or shared unless there is reasonable criminal intent. They believe the public should be given proper notice of when and what the drones will be used for. They also stress the importance of democratic control as well as auditing and effectiveness tracking. They state that “UAVs are potentially extremely powerful surveillance tools, and that power, like all government power, needs to be subject to checks and balances” (p. 15).
The Federal Aviation Administration has been assigned by Congress the difficult task of forming the regulations and policies on the safe integration and use of drones for public and private use in the U.S. The FAA established the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office in 2012 in order to create a plan that will establish operational and certification requirements for UAS. The FAA.Gov website discusses this process in the “Fact Sheet- Unmanned Aircraft Systems” webpage (2014). It describes six test sites that were chosen for research on UAS and how they hope to use the data retrieved to help in the creation of these future regulations. So far, however, the FAA is still in the data collection mode and has a September 30, 2015 deadline for setting up these new regulations.
What does the general public think about all of this? Well that is exactly what a research project being run by RTI international and The Institute for Homeland Security Solutions is seeking to find out. In their research brief “Unmanned aircraft and the human element: Public perceptions and first responder concerns” (2013) their research team did two studies to find out what the public’s perceptions and law enforcement concerns are. One study was a survey of police chiefs in Ohio where they were asked a series of questions about their level of awareness, and the potential applications and concerns about adopting UAS into their law enforcement operations. What it has found is that law enforcement officials are highly interested in using them, showing that 62% thought that the potential outweighed the barriers. The second study focused on the general public’s perceptions. Surveying over 2,000 people they found that 57% supported UAS use for any application. It concludes that a majority agree that the advantages of unmanned aircrafts outweigh the negatives.
All of these articles and studies play an integral part in raising a dialogue about this new technology we are about to confront in our own backyards.
Eyerman, J., Letterman, C., Pitts, W., Holloway, J., Henkle, K., Schanzer, D., … Kaydos-Daniels, S. (2013, June). Unmanned aircraft and the human element: Public perceptions and first responder concerns [Scholarly project]. http://sites.duke.edu/ihss/files/2013/06/UAS-Research-Brief.pdf
Federal Aviation Administration. (n.d.). http://www.faa.gov/
Finn, R., & Wright, D. (2012). Unmanned aircraft systems: Surveillance, ethics and privacy in civil applications. Computer Law & Security Review, 28(2), 184-194.
Jones, M. V. (2014). Drones the sky’s the limit–or is it? Technology & Engineering Teacher, 74(1), 28-32.
Molko, R. (2013). The drones are coming! Will the Fourth Amendment stop their threat to our privacy? Brooklyn Law Review, 78(4), 1279-1333.
Payton, T., & Claypoole, T. (2014). Privacy in the age of big data: Recognizing threats, defending your rights, and protecting your family. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Stanley, J., & Crump, C. (2011, December). Protecting privacy from aerial surveillance:Recommendations for government use of drone aircraft. https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/protectingprivacyfromaerialsurveillance.pdf