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A Drone the Size of a Mosquito Buzzing Over Your Backyard?

Judiciary Committee weighs pitfalls and benefits of domestic drone surveillance.

by
Bill Straub

Bio

March 21, 2013 - 10:24 am
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Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, added that drones have been used to assess the flooding of the Red River in the upper Midwest, battle California wildfires and are being used to study everything from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, tornadoes in the Great Plains, and volcanoes in Hawaii.

“Unlike military UAS, the systems most likely to be used by public safety agencies are small systems, many weighing less than five pounds, with limited flight duration,” Toscano said. “As for weaponization, it is a non-starter. The FAA prohibits deploying weapons on civil aircraft.”

But the low cost and compact nature of drones make them a perfect device for surveillance, raising significant Fourth Amendment questions. Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, noted that drones can “be equipped with sophisticated surveillance technology that makes it possible to spy on individuals on the ground.”

While her organization recognizes that drones provide “many positive applications,” they can also be used to obtain evidence in a criminal proceeding, intrude on a reasonable expectation of privacy, and gather personal data.

“Rules are necessary to ensure that fundamental standards for fairness, privacy and accountability are preserved,” she said. “The technology in use today is far more sophisticated than most people understand. Cameras used to outfit drones are among the highest definition cameras available. The Argus camera…has a resolution of 1.8 gigapixels and is capable of observing objects as small as six inches in detail from a height of 17,000 feet. On some drones, sensors can track up to 65 different targets across a distance of 65 square miles. Drones may also carry infrared cameras, heat sensors, GPS sensors that detect movement and automated license plate readers.”

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t considered the limits of drone surveillance under the Fourth Amendment. Twenty years ago the justices determined that law enforcement could conduct manned aerial surveillance from as low as 400 feet without a warrant. There is no federal statute providing safeguards to protect privacy against increased drone use, although Congress has directed the FAA to come up with a plan to integrate UAS into the domestic airspace.

“Accordingly, there are substantial legal and constitutional issues involved in the deployment of aerial drones by law enforcement and state and federal agencies that need to be addressed,” Stepanovich said.

Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, noted that drones “have a lot of people worried about privacy — and for good reason.”

“Drones drive down the cost of aerial surveillance to worrisome levels,” he said. “Unlike fixed cameras, drones need not rely on public infrastructure or private partnerships. And they can be equipped not only with video cameras and microphones, but also the capability to sense heat patterns, chemical signatures or the presence of a concealed firearm. American privacy law, meanwhile, places few limits on aerial surveillance.”

The American public, Calo said, enjoys “next to no expectation of privacy in public” and the Supreme Court has made it clear that law enforcement doesn’t need a warrant “to peer into your backyard.”

“I see no reason why these precedents would not extend readily to drones,” he said.

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Washington freelancer Bill Straub is former White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.

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Top Rated Comments   
Big Sis might want to use those drones in conjunction with 1.2 billion rounds of ammo - enough to sustain an Iraq-like war for 20 years. She won't answer congressional inquiries as to why DHS finds a need for so many rounds. Maybe those drones are going to be equipped with 9mm capabilities. Could our government be equipping themselves to wage a war against it's own citizenry?
Naw! This is Amerika! Can't happen here! WAKE UP AMERICA!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (25)
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Will the Drones kill the mosquitos?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As indicated in the next to last sentence of the article, "The American public ... enjoys 'next to no expectation of privacy in public'...". This has been true since the first people arrived in America. If you think your backyard has ever not been "public" in this sense, think again. The right of privacy is not in the constitution, and was made up by the Supreme Court to let them rule the way they wanted to. That means that it can change at any time.

These small drones do little or nothing to change the realities of surveillance, mostly just reduces the cost.

With the current state of electronic surveillance possible at the moment, there is very little that you do that is truly private. If you want that to change, you will probably need a new constitutional amendment. So... either realize, and get used to, the fact of not having any privacy or do something to change the current state of the law.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There's a quick, simple, cheap and easy solution to all the questions about unmanned drones.

Well, that may be an exaggeration.

Let's instead say, There is a quick, simple, cheap and easy solution to get the American people, Congress, and yes, even the president to act on this and make new laws to limit the use of drones in the United States and to protect the privacy of all Americans.

Make them publicly available.

Sell one to The National Enquirer, another to the New York Times, loan one to People Magazine and let PJMedia buy one to use as an "investigative journalism" tool.

How well this help, you ask? Simple, the first time Angelina Jolie shows up in a magazine sunbathing, naked, with her children gathered around her, in her own back yard, she's going to yell, scream, sue at the earliest possible moment and then contact her good friend, Mr. Obama.

All of a sudden, when the Hollywood Royalty who paid for Mr. Obama's previous campaign get in a tizzy about their privacy, I'm betting Mr. Obama, and the Democrats in congress, will suddenly start caring a whole lot about this issue and will pass new laws, for both private and government use, of unmanned drones.

Some billionaire out there should start a privately owned company to manufacture and sell, unmanned aircraft to private companies and citizens. Obama will have to do something.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
A nice idea, that leaves out the FAA. The FAA permits people to fly unmanned aerial vehicles, or not, pretty much at its discretion. At the moment, you can fly manned aircraft under a max weight limit, max speed limit, and minimum weather limit, as long as you don't fly more than 500 feet above the local terrain.

Unmanned aerial vehicles by private citizens are not permitted to fly out of sight of the controlling human. Note that a human must be able to intervene at all times. Fines for being found breaking these rules are not light. So, ...private citizens will not be nearly as able as civilian government to surveil their neighbors without them knowing it, much less compared to the military-capable UAVs.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
True, but paprazzi don't seem to mind quick forays into lawlessness to get a story.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Spying? The same could be said of helicopters and sat's. The best use I could think of would be traffic control and monitoring car chases. At 5,000 ft a medium-sized drone couldn't be seen by the average person, especially while he is trying to evade the police. Perhaps, in this way, car chases could decrease, as a drone is feeding direction and coordinates to cops, who could then blockade, ensnare or apture the criminal at home.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Probably unlikely a mosquito can fly at 5K altitude. :)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
RC aircraft from 6" up have had surveillance capabilities for quite some time now. Battery or fuel engine, they have hardly any flight time, range or altitude capabilities but in high density residential areas I suspect they could be rather effective for snooping on neighbors. I wouldn't worry to much about anything considered micro sized being effective enough too justify law enforcement or any government agency to invest in. Likewise, the smaller the surveillance equipment the lesser the quality and weight ratio's will always dictate flight areodynamics capabilities. Also, the smaller the craft, the more radical the flight is to control remotely.

All the DOD mini and micro R&D platforms have largely been honeypots for taxpayers funding with little if any ROI.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Look into FPV (First Person View) long range UAV for the civilian market. Innovative private builders have built and flown longer range UAV units with steady video links and direct control over 50 miles. There is a ready to fly platform available now called the Phantom, under $700:

http://www.dji-innovations.com/products/phantom/overview/

Another $500 gets you a high quality FPV kit (available separately) with on screen display. These units are now within consumer grasp out of a box.


Of course some Dem legislators in Oregon are proposing laws that will kill the entire toy RC aircraft industry in that state.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygoJoVk_qSo
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Big Sis might want to use those drones in conjunction with 1.2 billion rounds of ammo - enough to sustain an Iraq-like war for 20 years. She won't answer congressional inquiries as to why DHS finds a need for so many rounds. Maybe those drones are going to be equipped with 9mm capabilities. Could our government be equipping themselves to wage a war against it's own citizenry?
Naw! This is Amerika! Can't happen here! WAKE UP AMERICA!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Clearly I need a giant Penumbrella over my house to ensure my right to privacy.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Clearly a violation of the Fourth Amendment... but this administration has shown a desire to DESTROY our Constitution...time to get out my flyswatter.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How about one flying up Obama's nosy nose.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
FOURTH AMENDMENT: AN OVERVIEW

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." Ultimately, these words endeavor to protect two fundamental liberty interests - the right to privacy and freedom from arbitrary invasions.

A search occurs when an expectation of privacy that society considers reasonable is infringed by a governmental employee or by an agent of the government. Private individuals who are not acting in either capacity are exempt from the Fourth Amendment prohibitions.

A seizure refers to the interference with an individual's possessory interest in property. To meet the definition of an unreasonable seizure, the property's owner must have had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the items seized. A person is seized when law enforcement personnel use physical force to restrain the person if a reasonable person in the same or a similar situation would not feel free to leave the situation. The previous owner of abandoned property cannot allege an unreasonable seizure of that abandoned property. Abandoned property is property left behind by its owner in a manner in which the owner abandons the possessory interest in the property and no longer retains a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to the search.

The prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures particularly affects the work of law enforcement personnel by restricting the actions that they may take in performing a criminal investigation; however, the ban also disallows unreasonable searches and seizures in the civil litigation context. Law enforcement may only conduct a search if individualized suspicion motivates the search. The Fourth Amendment prohibits generalized searches, unless extraordinary circumstances place the general public in danger.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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