Thursday, January 17, 2013

…and a UAV in every house…

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been around for many years. More recently, UAVs have been getting international attention because of the US military’s use of drones for monitoring and identifying enemy combatants and, at times, of armed drones for deploying deadly payloads on suspected terrorists.

The international debate has been swelling while the use of UAVs has increased, corresponding with the scale-back of the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. The premise has been that using technology that can be operated from a safe distance preserves precious lives and resources while increasing the scope of US surveillance and intelligence-gathering.

Meanwhile, you may have noticed that, on the domestic front, UAVs have quietly become part of a growing national debate, illustrating a new tension between advances in technology and traditional notions of privacy.

Not all UAVs are created equal. At last check, there were nearly 1,000 companies, including several hundred contracting with the US Department of Defense, with some form of UAV technology, ranging from nano-UAVs—aircraft that weigh less than 8 ounces, equipped with a camera and sensor technology, that can remain in the air for over 10 minutes—to the hulking UAVs manufactured by large defense contractors like Northrop Grumman.

For years, agriculture consultants and large ag producers, and more recently farmers, have moved “to the skies” for surveillance of crop conditions. With advancing technology, the ability to scan the surface can provide valuable information about the presence of moisture, the effectiveness of chemical applications, and the presence of certain risks to crops.

On the security front, border patrol agents and customs agents monitoring sea ports and large portions of unfenced and unpatrolled borders with Canada and Mexico have experimented with the use of UAVs to broaden the reach of the gate-keeping function of the Department of Homeland Security.

In each of these cases, the consensus is that if there is a convenient, safe way to use technology to monitor and survey land, assets, and the movement of people (especially to where they shouldn’t be), there is a compelling interest to use technology.

A couple of recent cases, however, illustrate controversial uses of drones.

Example 1: in connection with surveillance of the Brossart family, suspected of being in possession of half a dozen pilfered cows, local law officials enlisted the use of a Predator Drone to determine the whereabouts of suspected armed individuals at the family’s rural residence. The cattle “rustlers” were taken into custody peaceably and law enforcement gave credit to the use of the drone to avoid a Ruby Ridge-like” episode.

Example 2: hunters shot down an animal rights activist drone (broad sense of the term—it flew and had a camera) that was collecting aerial video of hunters at a private hunting club. The “perpetrators” have likely achieved folk hero status at the club. No further commentary here on whether it was the hunters or the activists that were the “perpetrators,” but you can see the outline of a perfectly good debate.

Privacy advocates are extremely worried about such domestic use of UAVs, and for good reason. The Fourth Amendment ensures that private citizens on private property are protected from unreasonable searches. Case law developed since the passage of the Bill of Rights has provided some stretching and tightening of what qualifies as a warrantless search—whether your right to privacy extends outside of your home and whether or not pictures from airspace are prohibited (GoogleEarth™ anyone?).

Also, the compelling protection and security argument can’t be ignored when considering the interests of the government (safety, security, defense, etc.) versus an individual’s right to privacy. (No privacy argument without a Benjamin Franklin quotation - In 1755, and numerous times prior to and after the birth of the United States, "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”).

Congress is now getting into the picture. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West VA) offered a bill last year (the Farmers Privacy Act, H.R. 5961) that aims to prevent the US Environmental Protection Agency from using drones to hunt for regulatory violations, particularly on farms.

The debate is just getting started, but none too soon. You can now purchase a drone for several hundred dollars and control it with your iPhone. Recently, at CES, the Parrot AR Drone was showcased and can be purchased on Amazon here. Soon everyone will have a drone.

1 comment :

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