Nowhere to hide: The brave new world of domestic drones
In the good old days, if you wanted to spy on someone or cause them harm, you pretty much had to do it up close and personal. You could stand outside someone’s house and peek through the windows, follow people around, punch them in the nose. The only way to conceal your identity was to wear a mask, or stand far enough away before aiming a rock, arrow, or bullet.
And then mankind came up with devices that allowed greater distance between the aggressor and the subject of interest.
In the 20th century, we began using aircrafts for reconnaissance and for dropping bombs. During World War I came the first attempt at using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also known as drones – and we’ve been using them in warfare ever since. The soldier responsible for dropping the bomb never has to see, or be seen by, the human targets on the ground.
The same technological tsunami that has influenced nearly every facet of modern life has led to astonishing advances in the capabilities of drones.
If your eyes glaze over when discussions of weapons of war arise, here’s a reason to pay attention to what’s going on in the world of drones:
They’re not just for use on foreign enemies anymore. And not just for use by the military. Starting now, we’ll be hearing more and more about “domestic drones.” (And no, that’s not a new term for “stay-at-home-dads.”)
Soon, ordinary citizens– private investigators and spurned lovers– may be hunched over their computers or smart phones, controlling tiny drones, one of which may be perched on your bathroom windowsill, or electronically tethered to your cellphone signal, following you wherever you may roam.
If that sounds far-fetched, keep reading.
Under a federal law enacted a year ago, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is required to establish sites where drones– both military and civilian– can be tested. The point of this is to prepare for September 2015, when the same federal law requires the FAA to fling open U.S. airspace to use by drones.
That’s a mere 18 months away. Consider that, according to FAA forecasts, some 10,000 civilian drones will be buzzing around us within five years.
To get a handle on what your world might look and sound like once private industry and law enforcement dive into the world of drones, here’s what L.A. Times reporter Jennifer Gibson had to say on the subject last year: “…drones are a constant presence in the skies above the North Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan, with as many as six hovering over villages at any one time. People hear them day and night. They are an inescapable presence….”
An inescapable presence. Imagine that.
What are the implications for your privacy? How might information gathered about you be used, both commercially, and for purposes of law enforcement? It’s a murky area, with no clear answers. Also, consider that drones can be loaded with weaponry: explosives, tasers, tear gas, or other poison gas.
Nevertheless, there are many potential beneficial uses for drones: by fire fighters, farmers, ranchers, search-and-rescue personnel, filmmakers, and journalists. And of course, law enforcement and Homeland Security can use this surveillance and weapons-delivery method to protect us from harm.
The situation is complicated, and is soon to be overwhelming.
A few weeks ago, Charlottesville became the first city in the United States to pass an anti-drone resolution. It means that for the next two years, the city will be a no-drone zone. I’m not sure how meaningful or effective such a drone ban will be, but it has served to call our attention to the immense cultural shift that is upon us.
Already, researchers at Virginia Tech are exploring the use of drones in monitoring the health of crops. U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been using them for several years. There are test sites all over the country, including law enforcement agencies and university research facilities.
Drones range in size from the big and high-flying Global Hawk, which weighs 15,000 pounds and can survey thousands of miles of territory in a day, to the teensy “nano-hummingbird” being developed for the Pentagon by AeroVironment, Inc.
This nimble nano can hover and perch, and the thought of it is making me insanely suspicious of the various birds landing on the porch outside my window as I type this.
As technology produces ever-smaller miracles, you can bet that drones will become smaller and cleverer.
With the dawn of the 3-D printer age, I suspect that enterprising folks may fabricate their own nano-hummingbirds or other low-flying snooping machines. Stamp out the frame and add electronic innards, and you’ll be ready to fly your own reconnaissance missions.
What kinds of snooping are drones capable of, you may be wondering? The technological marvels include: video and night vision cameras, audio recording, thermal imaging allowing the viewer to virtually see through the walls of your home, GPS tracking, and cellphone eavesdropping tools, as well as facial-recognition abilities.
If those creative citizens with 3-D printers should arm their homemade drones with weapons, identifying and bringing an assailant to justice will be a challenge.
Thanks to the Charlottesville City Council resolution, I began to look into this. Initially, I held out hope that we could strike a balance between this startling new use of technology and our Constitutional right to be protected from unreasonable searches at the hands of government.
That hope evaporated when I came across a statement that tells me this is a lost cause. The drones have won already.
Consider what Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, thinks about this flood of drone innovation. He says we are “on the path towards unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft and creating thousands of American jobs." Further, he asserts that demand for test sites across the United States is intense "because they recognize the incredible economic and job creation potential it would bring with it.”
Other industry experts predict a multibillion-dollar market for civilian drones. They’re just waiting for the FAA to figure out the regulations that will ensure the safety of other aircraft.
It’s over. Why? Because there’s money to be made– billions of dollars – and money always wins.
Peter Singer, author the robotic warfare book Wired for War, had this to say about the arrival of domestic drones: “It’s the equivalent to the advent of the printing press, the computer, gun powder. It’s that scale of change.”
Yes, there will be worthwhile uses for these drones. But make no mistake: we have just crossed the Rubicon into a world of total surveillance and vulnerability. Who will be watching you, and to what end? You may never know.
Janis Jaquith lives in Free Union, and is the author of the Kindle eBook Birdseed Cookies: A Fractured Memoir, a collection of radio commentaries she has broadcast on NPR stations.Read more on: drones