Why Drones May Bring a Renaissance, Not Erosion, of Privacy

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Drone technology can easily erode the scraps of privacy we have left, but the creepiness of the eyes in the sky could force us to rethink our current legal framework for data collection.
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You know that animal feeling you get when you're being watched? That horror-movie tingle along the back of the neck, that neolithic desire to look around and find the pair of eyes that belong to the creature that's stalking you?

Well, you should probably experience that every day on the Internet, but you don't. That's always exasperated privacy advocates who wonder why we all don't care more about people tracking across the interweb. But that may change, if Stanford's Ryan Calo, who researches privacy at the Center for Internet and Society, is right.

Calo believes that drones could be a catalyst to update and increase our privacy protections. That's because drones are "the cold, technological embodiment of observation." They are easy to see and fear, unlike the servers that track your clickstream across the web. In essence, when people see what drones can do, they'll run screaming to the courts and legislatures with a ferocity that purely digital privacy erosion has never generated.

Flying drones are everywhere these days. Developed largely under the aegis of the military, they are making their way into civilian life, slowly but surely. Yesterday, the New York Times even hosted a roundtable discussion about the impact the robots are likely to have.

Drones, in my mind, make it clear how many of our feelings about privacy rest on the assumption that surveillance is time consuming or difficult. If someone smokes a joint in her backyard, she is making the (pretty good) calculation that a police officer is not watching. In our cars, we assume we can quickly send a text message at a red light or not wear our seatbelts for a few minutes or drive a few miles over the speed limit. We don't expect that someone is watching our every move and that gives the law some give, a bendiness that reflects it's a human construction.

But these little flying video and audio recorders, paired with powerful data analysis tools, make previously unthinkable levels of surveillance possible, even easy. Before the Internet, tracking someone's reading and shopping activities would have been nearly impossible without a private detective. Now, new online tracking tools make it possible to easily capture every page that you visit on the Internet. So companies do. Technology doesn't create entirely novel privacy questions, but it tilts the playing field towards or away from increased privacy without many citizens (or courts!) really noticing that anything had changed.

Let's look at one example of how drones change the privacy equation. We tend to think of our homes as having a perimeter. Property maps are two-dimensional, we talk about property lines as if they were burned into the ground. There are access points in two-dimensional space -- paths and roads -- that channel visitors through a small number of places. We can build fences or plant hedges and they need not be high to mark the territory out.

A flying drone with a zoom lens, though, makes that whole sense of two-dimensional privacy an anachronism. If one wanted privacy from the government or other citizens, one would have to defend the entire volume of airspace reaching up from one's property to several hundred feet up, if not much farther. This vastly increases the cost of physically hiding one's activities. And, vis a vis law enforcement, the idea of "plain sight" hardly even makes sense anymore, as Jonathan Zittrain pointed out yesterday:

The prospect of constant government surveillance of citizens through cheap drones tests the "plain sight" doctrine by which, under our Constitution, police are generally allowed to scope out whatever is in plain view, without requiring a warrant. Supercharged technologies face some limits -- extra-sensitive remote microphones, or heat signature detectors of the sort that might be pointed at the wall of a home to detect marijuana-growing lamps in use inside.

If a drone with a zoom lens happens to be cruising by your 100-acre farm and spots you smoking a joint on it, were you in plain sight? What if it were technically outside your property line or far above it?

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Calo doesn't think we can look to the current body of privacy law for much help in keeping our lives private.

There is very little in our privacy law that would prohibit the use of drones within our borders. Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. In 1986, the Supreme Court found no search where local police flew over the defendant's backyard with a private plane. A few years later, the Court admitted evidence spotted by an officer in a helicopter looking through two missing roof panels in a greenhouse. Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments. [emphasis mine]

Yet we know that if drones are operated in populated areas, they will end up doing all kinds of collateral surveillance. And nothing legal stands in their way. 

If anything, observations by drones may occasion less scrutiny than manned aerial vehicles. Several prominent cases, and a significant body of scholarship, reflect the view that no privacy violation has occurred unless and until a human observes a person, object, or attribute. Just as a dog might sniff packages and alert an officer only in the presence of contraband, so might a drone scan for various chemicals or heat signatures and alert an officer only upon spotting the telltale signs of drug production.

Calo, for one, is not despairing. The types of privacy issues drones create are easier to parse than ones that occur between you and your web browser, so are more likely to create a public outcry. Online privacy violations "tend to be hard to visualize."

Maybe somewhere, in some distant server farm, the government correlates two pieces of disparate information. Maybe one online advertiser you have never heard of merges with another to share email lists. Perhaps a shopper's purchase of an organic product increases the likelihood she is a Democrat just enough to cause her identity to be sold to a campaign. At most one can picture the occasional harmful outcome; its mechanism remains obscure.

But drones are a whole different story, Calo argues. If drones were to come into common usage, "people would feel observed, regardless of how or whether the information was actually used," he wrote. "The resulting backlash could force us to reexamine not merely the use of drones to observe, but the doctrines that today permit this use." In other words, perhaps the creepiness of drones would cast wider doubt on the enterprise of personal data collection.

That's the optimistic scenario. The other one you may have already read:

The black mustachio'd face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked into Winston's own... In the far distance, a helicopter skimmed between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people's windows.

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Images: 1. Reuters. 2. Reuters. 3. flickr/sidkites. The first two images have been digitally manipulated.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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