The rumor mill received an injection of new fuel after the release of Department of Justice memo outlining the Obama Administration’s legal justifications for drone attacks on American citizens. This led to worries about their use over U.S. soil and renewing big brother-esque speculative predictions for what will come. The privacy of which all Americans are entitled is on the verge of collapse. But is it? How valid is this path of logic that begins with this memo and leads to the sacrifice of personal privacy?
The use of drones as surveillance tools and weapons of war made famous, or more accurately infamous, in the Afghanistan, Iraq and the far-reaching war on terror, has fostered a climate ripe for speculation and conspiracy theories. Concerns, legitimate and not, have returned home to the United States as police departments and other domestic agencies foresee the benefits these unmanned, flying vehicles offer. Drone use hold the promise of increased efficiency and cost reduction in the areas of search and rescue, fugitive apprehension, tracking of illegal drug activity, assessment of natural disasters and assisting with the handling of wildfires. This however does not belay skeptics' predictions their use over US skies will inevitably lead to unwarranted surveillance of private citizens.
Are these valid concerns? Absolutely. Just as civil liberties are protected in other related areas the use of drones and associated justifications need responsible regulations. Eleven states, including Montana, North Dakota, region, California, Missouri among others, have introduced legislation to deter or regulate the use of drones. Unfortunately, many of these efforts appear more emotionally reflexive rather than thoroughly assessed pieces of legislation.
The emotions elicited by the vehicles' exceptional surveillance capabilities, the stories of their perceived assassination missions and ability to kill from afar are intense, sparking fear of government-induced police states. More than anything else, however, the moniker itself, drones, does more to conjure fearful of autonomous, flying machines, unseen eyes watching and preparing for who knows what. It's the subject of innumerable science fiction movies, from The Matrix to The Terminator, where machines take over the world forcing humans into submission all borne of apparent innocuous beginnings. Machines too smart for their own good inevitably turn on their masters. Consciously or not, these are the inherent fears the label “drones” produce in the public mind.
While the roots of these concerns are understandable they are not unique. Similar worries of privacy infringement came out of the first uses of police helicopters and the incorporation of infrared and night vision technologies later on. Blue Thunder comes to mind, a movie about a stealth, cobra-type, police helicopter meant to cast a spotlight on the misuse of emerging technologies. During the 1980's, public anxiety of a new generation of spy satellites said to be capable of reading a license plate from miles above the Earth's surface was hotly debated.
It's not difficult imagining law enforcement agencies piloting military drones through the evening skies, unbeknownst to all those below but the reality is not so ominous. Given the $15 to $34 million dollar price tag, of what's become the quintessential “drone”, the Predator (in service since 1995) and its subsequent siblings, they are well beyond the shrinking budgets of local police departments. Some may have the opportunity to borrow a drone from their local Homeland Security Office but someone still has to foot the bill for its operation. In reality law enforcement is likely to invest in the smaller, less expensive models, the aerial versions of the bomb disposal UAV's currently in use today. These are unmanned vehicles more akin to a remote controlled helicopter built from Radio Shack parts, just with much better cameras.
The issue, although infrequently articulated, with unmanned vehicles flying high above U.S. soil is the thought does not sit well with the public. However, the difference between a UAV and a human occupied Cessna is minimal as both are human operated. Is remote operation such a significant exception?
Yet, whichever direction this debate takes the the broad strokes of the conversation consistently returns to privacy and the violation, or perceived violation, of it. But if privacy is the core issue in all this then aren't there more prevalent invasions of one's personal privacy on a daily basis? Every time you visit Amazon, Google or Facebook every bit of that visit is packaged, picked apart into its miniscule component parts all to find out what makes that particular person tick. The GPS in that smartphone tucked into those pants pocket records where you are at anytime. How many Dateline Real Life Mystery or 48 Hour Mystery crimes were solved in large part due to the cell tower the murder's phone pinged off at the time of the crime? And if privacy is of such paramount concern then why do so many feel the need to post virtually every random thought online through Twitter and a plethora of other social media sites?
In the end one should ask is there anything happening in your backyard that would bring a high flying drone into the vicinity of your residence? If the type of steak being cooked on that new grill has such prime informational value then that customer review search for the grill, the purchase of it made on Amazon or at Home Depot, the marinade recipe download to the laptop in the kitchen, the type of meat bought on credit at the local Safeway and the tweeted picture of that delicious meal will tell anyone what kind of barbeque you settled on, what your favorite choice of prime rib is, how you like it prepared and the approximate time you sat down to eat it. So in the whole scheme of things, what difference is the occasional robotic flyover really going to matter?