Eye in the Sky – Drone Surveillance and Privacy

In the Hall and Oats musical hit ‘Private Eyes’, which was part of a 1981 album by the same name there is a chorus that begins;

Private eyes
They’re watching you
They see your every move.

Now that song was not about the surveillance culture that is permeating almost every part of modern society –  but it might well have been examining the role that drone surveillance is playing in an increasing threat to privacy.

Drones that were once used only for military purposes have now entered the private sector – albeit with models that are significantly smaller and not as heavily armed as drones like the U.S. Reaper which carries Hellfire missiles. Drones are now used for recreational purposes. You can buy drones over the counter at hobbyist shops or online and even build them yourselves. They are also playing a role in rescue missions. In early 2018, Australian lifeguards successfully deployed a drone to rescue two boys who were struggling in rough surf conditions off the eastern coast of Australia. The lifeguard piloted the drone equipped with a flotation pod which was dropped into the sea after spotting the boys. They were later rescued by other members of the lifeguard corps.

Companies like Amazon are developing drones for commercial and logistics purposes to deliver packages in the near future. Drones are now also used in a variety of sectors including mining, agriculture and power industries.

Drones – How do they work?

In short drones are UAV’s – that is unmanned aerial vehicles. They can be operated by individuals and companies under some specific rules set out by the Federal Aviation Authority, at least in the United States. By law they may be fitted with high resolution cameras and video equipment – but these are heavily restricted as far as use is concerned although enforcement remains a challenge.

Individuals can operate the drones using control devices as simple as remote controls supplied with the drones or though their Smartphones. Of course, the UAV’s operated by governments are significantly more complex – and their surveillance capabilities much more advanced than those available to civilians. The drones operated by government military forces are primarily focused on surveillance of hostile force movement and behavior, and at times their destruction.

Drone surveillance – What is the problem?

The wide reach of drone surveillance technology increases the risk of cybersecurity attack. The information that drones gather, especially when used by governments or law enforcement can be tremendously sensitive and drones may provide a back door for hackers to access vast amounts of data stored not only on that particular device – but also on a central server to which it is connected.

However, there is also a far simpler, yet potentially damaging threat to privacy. A drone is a device that can be used to invade a person’s privacy in a mundane way – it can simply spy on you.

However, at least in the United States the judiciary is taking a dim view of just how drone surveillance technologies are being used to invade the privacy of individuals.

In July of 2015 in Kentucky U.S., a man named William Merideth saw a drone flying over his home. He believed it was spying on his 16-year-old daughter who was sunbathing in the garden. So he reached for his shotgun and blasted the drone out of the sky. He was arrested for ‘wanton endangerment and criminal mischief.’

A Kentucky court declared Merideth innocent of the charges. The judge, declared that two human witnesses saw the drone below the tree line. This evidence indicated that this was an invasion of Merideth’s privacy.

Concerns about the use of radical new technology and invasion of privacy are nothing new.

“Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual … the right to be let alone.”

This sentiment was not expressed by the civil liberties group in the 21st century – it was actually expressed by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in a Harvard Law Review article entitled ‘The Right to Privacy’ – in 1890. The authors were actually expressing alarm at law enforcement surveillance of the data transmitted through the telegraph and telephone. However – they could very well have been talking about the risks to privacy in what is rapidly becoming the age of surveillance.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “drones deployed without proper regulation, drones equipped with facial recognition software, infrared technology, and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations would cause unprecedented invasions of our privacy rights. Interconnected drones could enable mass tracking of vehicles and people in wide areas. Tiny drones could go completely unnoticed while peering into the window of a home or place of worship.”

Drone manufacturers add features based on demand, making sure the end product will appeal to the target market, which could be regular consumers, organizations, or the military.

However, all drones contain the same basic group of components: motors, electronic speed controllers (ESC) and a flight controller, a sensor block, a GPS unit, remote control radio receiver, and a rechargeable battery. Navigation can be performed remotely or programmed using ground station software to instruct the device to find an optimum route to a set destination.

But this off the shelf functionality may come at a cost – and one that is hidden.

In the technological race to produce the season’s must have technological toy, drone manufacturers may have simply lost sight of the privacy implications that are packaged with their products. Drones can be hacked easily – and the tools required to perform that hacking are becoming ever more easily accessible. The new generation of cameras packaged with over the counter drones can collect some incredible aerial footage – but they can also invade a person’s privacy – and those with malicious intent can take control of these devices ever more easily.

Privacy threats of drone surveillance

There is a huge question as to whether current laws that exist across the globe in different jurisdictions can adequately protect ordinary people from the privacy threats presented by drone technology. Is the idea of having your fast food or latest smart pad delivered to your door via drone worth the potential invasion of both personal space and the danger of a data breach worth the threat?

The jury is still (literally) out.  However, it is becoming increasingly clear that technology is leapfrogging the ability of legislation to deal with new challenges in drone surveillance. A brand-new paradigm may be needed to deal with these challenges.


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