Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

A Game of Drones

-- By MenahemGrossman - 04 May 2015

The Threat

Drones constitute the most serious looming threat to world peace, safety, and, especially, privacy. “Insect-size drones are busily being developed throughout the defense establishment, in academic facilities and by private firms,” reports a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed (by Gabriella Blum and Benjamin Wittes). When these drones become cheap enough for mass marketing—and it seems a safe bet they will—they will become the next great equalizer, allowing any bad actor to commit all manner of nefarious deeds from a safe, anonymous distance.

In an extreme scenario, tiny drones could be used to kill—by injecting poison or spreading diseases. But they can even more easily be used to completely strip us all of any remaining vestige of privacy. Mini-drones could easily be deployed by government, business, paparazzi, or your nosy neighbor to track your every move in public. They could likely invade your home, too, unless defensive measures are taken. The drones will use on-board facial recognition technology in order ensure they are tracking their desired target, or the images they record will be subjected to it afterwards; in the end it makes no difference, really. It won’t help that you don’t carry a smartphone, if there is a smartphone following you around all day, sending information about your exact whereabouts and actions to Amazon, or Big Brother.

There appear to be two main avenues down which we can go to seek protection: government regulation and self-defense technology.

The Regulatory Approach

In February, the FAA proposed regulations that would govern private drone flight. The rules included: an upper-weight limit (but not a lower limit); a requirement that there be a direct line of sight between operator and drone; height and speed limits; a possible operator’s licensing regime; and prohibitions on flying recklessly, or over people. In short, the rules appear focused on safety and responsible flying, which are, after all, the FAA’s primary concern, and not on the social harms that may result from ubiquitous drones.

Furthermore, even if the rules were much more draconian—say they imposed a minimum weight limit to prevent stealth drones, or prohibited photographing people [by drone] without their knowledge even in public—enforcement would be an insurmountable obstacle. For one thing, drones could be operated anonymously, making it extremely difficult to catch violators. (They will also be eventually be more-or-less disposable, even self-destructing after uploading the data they collect to the cloud, so they will not be able to be tracked back to their owners.) Sooner or later, they won’t need to be controlled at all; they will instead be pre-programmed to operate on autopilot. Nor could the government successfully outlaw the manufacture or import of stealthy mini-drones, as their very stealthy-ness will make them extremely easy to smuggle into the country. They could even fly in on their own, like a flock of migrating birds.

Moreover, whatever capabilities the government would possess to track and identify drone-using criminals would likely need to be devoted to the more pressing dangers of lethal terrorism.

Finally, perhaps the most important problem with relying on government to police drone use is the fact that the government is unlikely to restrain itself from using the bonanza of mass surveillance represented by teensy drones.

The Self-Help Approach

If government cannot be relied upon to protect its citizens from the threat represented by mini-drones, that leaves citizens to seek ways to protect themselves. One can readily predict that this will lead to an arms race of uncertain outcome between offensive and defensive drone-related technologies.

Already, drone interceptors equipped with nets have been deployed over Paris in response to violations of the city-wide ban on drone flight. (I am unaware if they have managed to catch anything.) The interceptor approach has its drawbacks, however. Specifically, it would seem that the technology required to deploy a drone that can intercept and neutralize another small and nimble drone will tend to be more complex and costly than the technology sported by the target drone, giving a decided advantage to the prey over the predator. The utility of this approach by citizens would also be limited to protecting their homes, as it would not be very practical to attack any drone flying in public space.

Jamming technology would likewise have limited effectiveness, as it will be of no use against pre-programmed drones operating on auto-pilot.

One area where there are promising developments is anti-photography technologies. As the name implies, this refers to technologies designed to frustrate photography through techniques that blind or dazzle cameras, rendering the images they capture useless. For example, a recent patent application (US8157396 B2) describes a hand-held device that makes use of multiple “deterrents,” such as a beam of focused light, flashing strobe lights, and others, when pointed in the general direction of cameras.

Still, this hardly seems a practical solution for ordinary citizens going about their daily lives while unseen drones hover about. People who don’t have anything in particular that they are concerned about hiding will be loathe to walk around all the time flashing lights everywhere to prevent themselves from being photographed. Perhaps in the future such technologies can be made to detect when a lens is pointed at a person and respond accordingly (the aforementioned patent mentions this application).


In short, the advent of cheap, anonymous drone technology represents an extremely serious threat to personal security and privacy, one that does not yet appear to have a robust solution. The authors of the Journal op-ed suggest that a new social contract is required, one in which we may need to accept more action by the government, working together with google and the like, to increase surveillance in order to keep us safe. This approach is problematic for two reasons: first, an all-seeing government presents a far greater threat than any nosy private actor; second, there seems little reason to think the government can reliably protect us from these threats anyway, which means we would be throwing away our freedom for nothing.

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r2 - 29 Jun 2015 - 15:28:15 - MarkDrake
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