Increasingly Popular Drones Cause Privacy Concerns

Drone flying over a field


Did you think flying robots were only creatures of science fiction movies? Silly you. Your neighbor can buy one from any number of dealers and online sources, and next thing you know, cameras could be flying over your backyard.

Drones – remotely controlled devices that have been made famous by the military’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles – are now appealing to the civilian population and the police, raising concerns with privacy groups.


Drone On

You can buy a drone – one that’s even controlled with your iPhone or iPad – on Amazon for about $400. And their sales are reportedly skyrocketing.

Drones that fly over 400 feet require a certification or authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is closely monitoring their use. The FAA’s “hobbyist” exception allows private individuals to fly drones under that height and within their line of sight.

The drones have many useful applications. Police want to use them to get better views of dangerous situations. And private citizens say the drones can help them sniff out things like animal cruelty.

“There are many great uses for drones, like fighting forest fires, mapping natural disaster areas, searching for missing children, or studying weather,” says Trevor Timm, an activist with the EFF in San Francisco.

“All we want are some privacy safeguards put into place so that police don’t abuse the technology to invade people’s privacy,” he adds. “We can have all the good benefits of drones while still making sure people’s rights are protected.”


Privacy Concerns Mount

The EFF in January 2012 sued the federal Department of Transportation – part of the FAA – in an effort to reveal who is applying for licenses to fly drones, after the organization’s April 2011 Freedom of Information request for the info was denied.

So far, the organization has reportedly determined that different branches of the federal government have applied for drone licenses, as well as state agencies, colleges and police departments.

EFF is not alone in its concern over privacy.

In Seattle, concerned citizens banded together with community leaders to force the police department to back off its plan to use drones to view crime scenes, accidents, disasters, and search and rescue operations, according to the AP.

Charlottesville, Va. recently became the first town to pass a drone ordinance, says Timm. “In addition, at least 13 states right now have legislation being actively considered that would restrict drone use in the name of privacy.”


Tie Those Shoelaces

Timm says the devices can gather a startling amount of detailed information from very far away. “All drones carry some sort of camera with recording capabilities. Some newer high definition cameras – previously used only by the military – are so powerful they can see the color of your shoelaces from a mile away.”

“Drones can also be equipped with infrared or heat sensors – technology that can literally see through walls, as well as facial recognition technology, radar, and license plate readers,” Timm continues.

It’s important to keep tabs on law enforcement’s use of such technology, according to the EFF. “Police could also use the technology on a drone [to] grab a person’s GPS coordinates, texts, and calls,” Timm warns.

Finally, he says, “through distributed video, a number of drones working in concert like a swarm of insects can scoop up information to provide comprehensive surveillance. It is now so cheap to store data that all this information could be collected and stored indefinitely and shared with any other government agency.”

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