Drones in the USA: Should we worry?

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surveillance droneThe use of flying surveillance drones is beginning to move from the battlefield to our domestic shores.  Not surprisingly, it is stirring up plenty of controversy.

Some of the concern reflects the present use of drones in battle areas.  Equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment and lethal munitions, military drones are sent on reconnaissance and surgical kill missions against military targets, leaders and terrorists.  Which all sounds fine in a battle situation (even if they still result in some collateral damage); but what about in the USA?  Some citizens are concerned that Americans in the US would be singled out as targets for military-grade drones to attack, and they question whether an American citizen determined to be a threat against other Americans should be surgically killed on American soil.

Okay… that’s not entirely true.  The real concern American citizens have is that our government, not being infallible, will be told by some anonymous or insane source that one of us law-abiding citizens is a terrorist; and that the government, not questioning or investigating said information, will fire off a drone to take us out on our way to Burger King.

This is good old American paranoia at work, of course.  It seems to be Americans’ favorite pastime to assume their moronic and ineffectual government is actually a brilliant, frighteningly efficient and ruthless government; that they are secretly watching our every move with hidden snipers, just waiting for the kill order when we shortchange the guy at the drug store.  Every American is raised to believe he or she is someone special… and therefore worthy, even if secretly, of being watched by hidden evil forces.  Our lives are made up of moments when someone may find out how special we’re not, sprinkled with moments when we believe that, if someone knew we were not paragons of virtue, we’d be taken out quickly and unilaterally.  (Thank you, Cold War.)

At heart,  we know the truth is somewhere in the middle: That our government is just made up of ordinary men and women, just like you, your relatives, or the couple next door; they don’t have access to Star Trek-quality sensors to watch every move of every American; nor do they have the virtually unlimited funds needed to seed our every block with snipers or monitor every computer and cash register for signs of fraud, hacking and kiddie porn.  We also know that we’re not perfect, but that our imperfections aren’t usually enough to earn us more than an occasional speeding ticket.

Now this paranoia is being extended to local law enforcement agencies.  Americans can now fear that their local police department will use drones to spy from the sky, catching speeders and jaywalkers with much greater efficiency than the police officers, radar guns and monitoring cameras could do on their own.

Okay, no… that’s not true either.  Wait… actually, it is.  Every American wants to be able to drive as fast as they want, cut across the street heedless of traffic markers, spit and throw litter on the sidewalk.  Drones will make those things that much harder to get away with… drat!  I can’t do things I know are illegal, because I’m more likely to get caught!

So, where does paranoia come in here?  Well, again, we assume the police have unlimited funds and resources, so we’ll all have drones watching us at every moment in swarms, tossing down tickets at us every time we miss a trashcan with our sandwich wrapper.  But drones are expensive to buy and maintain; they use fuel… and we all know fuel ain’t cheap.  And you don’t think somebody is gonna notice when the drones are in the air for 400 hours… and contribute to about 14 hours of actual police work?

So, we can assume the police won’t be a real threat… except to chronic speeders.  All I can say is: Get familiar with cruise control, Leadfoot.

So, what’s left?  Only the real concern of all Americans: That drones will violate the sanctity and privacy of the American home.  And they’re not even worried about the government or the police doing that.  They’re worried about that weird guy who lives down the street.  Citizens are afraid that their fellow Americans will buy drones, outfit them with sophisticated cameras, and go swooping up to our bedroom and bathroom windows, catching us in (or out of) our unmentionables, doing all kinds of kinky things that we don’t want the neighbors to know about.

Fortunately, American law still values the privacy of the home; and we can sleep soundly knowing that American law will be rewritten to include violation of our privacy by drones… especially non-government or non-law-enforcement drones.  (Why?  Because those government and law enforcement people don’t want the neighbors spying on them.)  In other words, your government may be allowed to look at your house—though we all know they’re not very likely to—but your neighbor will be forbidden to spy on you for any reason.  Chances are, drones owned by private individuals will be allowed to carry cameras; but those cameras will not be permitted to be able to see through the sheerest curtains, or carry infra-red or other special lenses that allow seeing through solid objects.

Those drones will also have to be registered with the FAA, since they constitute an airborne hazard.  And if citizens (or the government) are concerned enough about where Mr. Jones sends his drone, the FAA will require active location technology on every drone—possibly even filing of flight plans—and that location data may be made available to citizens to monitor their own airspaces.  Fines for violations of airspace or flight without a flight plan can be severe… ask any private or commercial pilot.  Drones will likely be regulated just as tightly, if not more, making it more than a bit of a pain for the average guy to own a drone at all, much less to use it for anything other than specified tasks (like monitoring property, patrolling boundaries, checking crop fields, etc).

tiny droneAnd looking to the future… do we have anything to fear from the next generation of drones, the bird- or even insect-sized devices that are under R&D right now?  Should we fear tiny devices that can literally stick to our windows and peer inside?  Again, the law will certainly forbid it, at least for non-official use… but will that be enough?

At that point, American citizens may be looking into appropriate countermeasures for devices too small to be easily tracked by the authorities.  Special films that can cover a window and make it a one-way glass, impervious to outside cameras, are a distinct possibility.  And maybe some sort of “drone-zapper” technology will turn up at the local hardware store, something that will detect tiny drones within a specified radius and take them out with tiny projectiles or electric bolts.  I’m sure we can depend on American inventors to provide us with those counter-surveillance tools.  In fact, I’m sure the American government will develop those tools first, to protect us from foreign drones, and private inventors won’t be far behind.

Essentially, our concern over drones isn’t any different than our usual concerns about any new and unfamiliar technology that reaches us.  Everything, from the locomotive down to the laser pointer, has undergone similar scrutiny, as people worried about the damage and disruption they would create in our world.  But in every case, we have studied, examined, and made reasonable decisions about how that technology should be used, putting safety technology onto it and/or writing laws to govern it.  And in every case so far, we’ve reached an equilibrium that the majority of people are satisfied with, and a reasonably safe and governable technological society.  I see no fundamental reason why drone tech won’t go through the same process of shakeup and safety-adjustment that all other technologies have gone through.

So, do we have anything to fear from drones on US shores?  Well, to the paranoid, I can only say: Keep being afraid, there’s nothing I could say to persuade you.  But to everyone else, I say: Relax and close your blinds.  You’re good.

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One thought on “Drones in the USA: Should we worry?

  1. From Drones and Law Enforcement in America: The Unmanned Police Surveillance State:
    The US is at the dawn of “a new era in police surveillance,” the Associated Press revealed casually last week. In a Chicago-based story about the growing use of drones and other sophisticated, unmanned aircraft for aerial surveillance, it noted that the Congressional Research Service considers their future use “bound only by human ingenuity.” The story focused on one Illinois legislator who has proposed a limit on how far law enforcement agencies can go.

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