Sunday, June 24, 2012


I’m mostly copying this from an email conversation, just to put it here where I might be able to find it again someday.

On Father's day my son Gage called me partly to reference the fact that I am his father, but also to  offload some troubled contemplation on the issue of drones in United States airspace and modern loss of privacy in general.  There have been rumors along the political edges, and in radical places like Kansas, that various government agencies were spying on pretty much everyone from unmanned drones.  Within cities there are fears, apparently, that the police are using drones to spy on public places, and maybe even within your home, somehow, with thermal imaging.  In the Midwest the rumor was that the FDA was using drones to try to catch farmers doing something the FDA might not approve. 

It turns out that this last rumor was a paranoid fantasy, much like the old fear among militia fanatics that black United Nations helicopters were poised to swoop down and impose military law on North Dakota, or wherever.  Those older rumors also took the fear-of-surveillance form: federal agents were supposedly using them to enforce wildlife laws. 

The FDA doesn't use drones.  It uses manned aircraft to perform that task, if that helps us feel any better. 

The rumors about police departments have some truth to them, but not much...yet.   They have been used for border surveillance since 2005, and there has been some limited police use of drones in special situations.  But they aren’t in general use by police departments yet.  And the police departments who want to use them point out that the same cameras and much more can be loaded on piloted aircraft, which are already in use everywhere and have been for a very long time, and that cell phones can take videos on any city street at any time.   That’s all true.  We can be recorded at any time in any public place; and not just by the police, or by government, and not just by drones.  Google may be mapping your house this very minute.

But drones seem a bit more intrusive, don't they?  A manned aircraft has to be at least big enough, and visible enough, to contain a human form, and powerful enough to lift one.  Drones can be very small, and very quiet.   So in theory the privacy concerns are valid, and the issue is real.  And privacy concerns over drone use are getting attention, from both the right and the left.  The ACLU is on this, and see here for a report in the National Journal on concern from the Congressional Privacy Caucus (now, honestly, did you know there was one??).  The Electronic Privacy Information Center has a page on drones in the United States.

There are, apparently,  63 sites in the United States that are permitted by the FAA to launch drones, (click here for an interactive map of where they are and who they are: most of those are pretty benign.) 

The picture may change a lot in the near future, though.  There are all kinds of legitimate uses, including scientific research, traffic control, and so on, and the FAA, as required by legislation earlier this year, recently modified the rules with respect to drones, making it easier to get permission to use them.  

So what do you think?  Is this an four-alarm privacy holocaust, or is it just the next step in a privacy erosion process that has already gone so far we can't stop it?  Or do you think that the uses of drones will be generally contained within reasonable bounds?

I don't think this is a major issue yet.  But Gage is right to raise it.  It could become a major issue sometime soon.  And it was one that was completely (ahem...) off my radar until Gage pointed it out.

1 comment:

  1. Worry about drones seems a bit superfluous given all of the other inroads made into our privacy. Yes, drones could be spying on us soon - may already be - but our electronic communications are already subject to vetting by our civil servants. Read the ACLU blog about this issue ( and about drones.

    This is not to mention surveillance of credit card and mobile phone information, and CCTV. There are more than 4 million CCTV cameras in Britain - about one for every 14 people. In 2006, Richard Thomas, the UK's Information Commissioner, said that fears that the UK would "sleep-walk into a surveillance society" had become a reality.

    Drones? Yeah, I guess. But there are much more intrusive technologies spying on us already.