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FAA Bill Authorizes Surveillance Drones Over US 294

Posted by samzenpus
from the eye-in-the-sky dept.
fyngyrz writes "Congress passed a bill this week that makes it easier for the government to fly unmanned spy planes in U.S. airspace. From the article: 'The FAA Reauthorization Act, which President Obama is expected to sign, also orders the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015. Privacy advocates say the measure will lead to widespread use of drones for electronic surveillance by police agencies across the country and eventually by private companies as well.'"
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FAA Bill Authorizes Surveillance Drones Over US

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  • by mykos (1627575) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:12AM (#38980249)
    Why spend so much money shipping these things to drop errant bombs on brown people when we can save the cash and do it right here at home?
    • by mrclisdue (1321513) * on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:21AM (#38980317)

      I, for one, welcome our new overdrones.

      cheers,

      • by d3ac0n (715594) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @12:20PM (#38982633)

        I know everyone here in /. is going to be all up in arms over this as either police state violations of privacy or the "military-industrial complex" attacking citizens (thus the first post) But you all need to know that this was a MUCH less problematic bill than the regulations that the FAA was coming up with ON THEIR OWN.

        The FAA was working on a new set of rules and regs that would have put UAV use and development COMPLETELY into the hands of the big military provider companies (Northrop Grumman, Boeing, etc.) Basically they started a new SUAS (Small Unmanned Aerial Systems, the formal name for what we call a UAV) rule process and completely left out ALL the small business and FPV hobbyist (not to mention regular citizen) concerns. The bill passed in Congress is actually a direct reaction to that and is designed to MINIMIZE the lock-in that the "Militray-Industrial complex" has on the sales and USE of SUASs in the United States.

        It also has large set-asides for Hobbyist users (such as myself) and for regular citizens to create and use SUAS technology. Basically, it leaves WIDE OPEN the door for regular citizens to "watch the watchers". It's not perfect, and there are some restrictions in there that should be lifted or modified, but it's far and away better than what the unelected FAA members were about to do under the influence of "The Military-Industrial Complex".

        This is why I'm conservative. Bureaucracies are by far and away the easiest things for Big Corp. or the MIC to corrupt. Bureaucrats are unelected, unaccountable, and largely uncontrollable. Thus large centralized governments INEVITABLY become corrupt, regardless of how many "controls" we put on them. (in the end, they just ignore the law anyway, so why have them?)

        If concerned citizens hadn't started action on this item in time, the FAA's version of the rules would have gone into force and citizens and small businesses would have been completely locked out of SUAS and possibly even HOBBY airplane use. It would have been very bad indeed.

        So while I'm not entirely satisfied with the new law, it is FAR better than the alternative we would have received otherwise. (Sadly, because of the existence of over-sized and corrupt bureaucracies like the FAA, the "Just leave us alone" option wasn't available.)

        • by d3ac0n (715594) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @12:28PM (#38982763)

          Oh, a last point I forgot to mention;

          Prior to this there WERE NO restriction on SUAS use in US airspace. police and the military were ALREADY using SUAS to overfly and surveil citizens and crooks alike.

          This bill just ensures that we citizens have the right to both have fun with home brew SUAS tech AND to "Watch the watchers" by flying our own SUAS units.

          It also allows regular citizens the room to build and sell SUAS tech and build their own companies to compete against the "Big Boys" in the MIC. So it's generally good overall.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by hairyfeet (841228)

          So your answer is to just let the corps do what they want without even having to bother with the bribes? you DO realize that with a jug of milk at $4 the corps are pushing the conservatives to do away with the minimum wage even though thanks to the feds rampant inflation of the money what they are being paid now is worth less than it was in 1963? Or look at what happened with the banks after Glass Stegall ended, banks now treat Wall street like Las Vegas with nicer outfits.

          I'd say the ONLY thing we agree o

    • by MRe_nl (306212)

      Why spend so much manning these things to drop errant bombs on brown people when we can save the cash and fully automate them?

      http://www.newsytype.com/11606-automated-killer-drones/ [newsytype.com]

  • Don't worry (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:13AM (#38980255)

    If you aren't doing anything illegal, you really have nothing to hide. The world will be a safer place.

    • Re:Don't worry (Score:4, Insightful)

      by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:23AM (#38980325)

      If you aren't doing anything illegal, you really have nothing to hide. The world will be a safer place.

      I can't imagine the headache this will cause for air traffic controllers. They'll have these little blips on their radar ... and if it's a small airport these things could make it less safe for local air traffic.

      • by Cryacin (657549) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:32AM (#38980405)
        Not to mention the por guy that has to clean the windshield of the Airbus. "Hey Tom! Look at the size of THIS bug!"
        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          I got a chuckle out of your joke, but you did highlight a very serious problem. When I was in the Air Force in the early '70s, I had to tow some flightline equipment to a C-141 that was missing the co-pilot's windshield. The co-pilot himself was missing his head; a duck had gone through the windshield.

          I wonder what will happen when the first drone takes out a commercial airliner?

          • by ae1294 (1547521)

            I wonder what will happen when the first drone takes out a commercial airliner?

            Dem damn terrorist dun IT!

      • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Insightful)

        by michelcolman (1208008) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:34AM (#38980421)
        I hope these things are at least carrying transponders so they even make a blip on the radar at all. Without a transponder they'll be invisible to ATC and also won't trigger TCAS avoidance manoeuvers from aircraft. I don't know what altitude those things fly at, and whether or not there is any contact between the operators and air traffic controllers, but I hope they'll at least try to keep some kind of separation with normal aircraft.
        • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Informative)

          by sheetsda (230887) <doug.sheets@gmaiYEATSl.com minus poet> on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:13AM (#38980843)

          I hope these things are at least carrying transponders so they even make a blip on the radar at all.

          They'd still show up on radar without a transponder and it would make no sense at all to not have a $200 transponder on $200,000 drone. Without a transponder ATC just wouldn't have any altitude data (if turning off your transponder was all it took to hide from radar, radar would be useless in a war situation where the enemy is trying to hide - obviously not the case - and there would be no need for stealth aircraft). Aircraft are required have to be carrying an altitude reporting transponder to enter most controlled airspace for safety reasons. Aircraft are required to contact ATC prior to entering, and/or stay in continuous contact with ATC also for safety reasons.

          The FAA isn't stupid when it comes to safety (you might even say they're borderline paranoid). They won't give arbitrary exceptions to safety-related regulations.

          • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Informative)

            by jittles (1613415) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:22AM (#38980933)

            They'd still show up on radar without a transponder and it would make no sense at all to not have a $200 transponder on $200,000 drone. Without a transponder ATC just wouldn't have any altitude data (if turning off your transponder was all it took to hide from radar, radar would be useless in a war situation where the enemy is trying to hide - obviously not the case - and there would be no need for stealth aircraft).

            We aren't talking about Military radar installations, NORAD will already know where those drones are. We are talking about FAA style ATC, which DOES depend on transponders. If you have a big enough bird, you may get painted by ATC, but these drones are probably small enough and low enough that they will not give good returns. Even if there is a return, it may just look like a flock of birds, you never know. Without transponders, these drones will be dangerous. Even with transponders they may be dangerous for people flying in VFR and below ATC altitudes.

            • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Informative)

              by yabos (719499) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @11:29AM (#38981779)
              Depends on the size, yes. ATC here can detect single seat gliders 20+ miles away. Gliders have a big wingspan yes, but their cross section is quite small. The radar used by ATC does not require a transponder for something to show up on their screen. Likewise, you can have a transponder that won't even show your altitude but will just send a reply back to their ping with either code 1200(VFR outside controlled airspace), or some code given by ATC. Then you can have the Mode C(soon we will have mode S), which you can switch to altitude reporting as well as back to non-altitude reporting.
          • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Informative)

            by michelcolman (1208008) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:37AM (#38981123)

            There are two kinds of "radar" for ATC: Primary radar sends out a signal and listens for reflections, often picking up flocks of birds and even clutter from ground objects like windmills while not being able to detect many smaller objects. Secondary radar relies on transponders: it sends out signals and puts a blip on the screen for every coded reply it gets from aircraft transponders. It is much more precise, which is why ATC pretty much exclusively uses secondary radar. Things without a transponder do NOT show up on their screen. If there is ever an emergency requirement to locate some flying object without a transponder, they usually have to contact the military who still use primary radar.

            You are quite correct that aircraft are required to have transponders in most controlled airspace. I just hope this applies to unmanned drones as well, and the people operating those drones keep them out of controlled airspace. But what if they are doing surveillance on someone close to an airport? ("close" meaning 20 miles or so). How do they coordinate with ATC? I personally have no idea, but I hope they are in contact somehow.

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          As it stands now for remotely piloted non-autonomous craft there is in theory no conflict because they operate below 500 ft (legally, that is) while piloted craft are above 500 ft, again, legally. (IANAL but this is how it was explained to me, feel free to blast me apart.) Probably any drones are going to have to have all the same stuff planes have (at least, whatever is applicable) if they want to operate over 500 ft. They won't be permitted to operate in controlled airspaces without prior permission anywa

      • If you aren't doing anything illegal, you really have nothing to hide. The world will be a safer place.

        I can't imagine the headache this will cause for air traffic controllers. They'll have these little blips on their radar ... and if it's a small airport these things could make it less safe for local air traffic.

        That's why this is part of the FAA modernization bill - they want to get rid of the commercial pilots, too. Ready to hop on a 747 piloted from the ground?

      • I can't imagine the headache this will cause for air traffic controllers. They'll have these little blips on their radar ... and if it's a small airport these things could make it less safe for local air traffic.

        They're not planning on using radar anymore.

        Part of this bill is the phasing out of radar as a traffic-control tool and its replacement with gps/satnav/computer coordination of aircraft positions and related information.

        Basically, everything will be reporting its position/velocity/etc, and that in

      • by timeOday (582209)
        Your comment about air traffic control is more relevant than all the ones about privacy. Don't get me wrong, the privacy issues are more important in the long run, but this particular bill is about managing flight safety issues, for example by creating test ranges the FAA will use to explore how best to manage air traffic control. Public policy on spying on Americans will not be settled through the FAA, it will be settled by regulating the police and the use of evidence they gather with drones. Personall
      • Actually the problem is that the air traffic controllers will *not* have these little blips on their screens. The little drones are not visible on radar/distinguishable from birds and a big plane flying into a little one is a real concern.
    • Re:Don't worry (Score:4, Insightful)

      by g0bshiTe (596213) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:09AM (#38980777)
      You won't have to do anything illegal. Say one day you are going about your normal routine, one of these drones is flying overhead and you do something in view of it that is deemed "suspicious behavior". Due to one act that was perceived as suspicious you get your very own drone following your full time. Sooner or later you will do something that compounds your situation.

      You are right, the world would be a safer place, and I see no opportunity for abuse of these.
      • by mlts (1038732) *

        Just wait until drones start being used to catch people in police chases. Then just travel streets looking for people speeding or whom it thinks ran lights. Then it will take pictures of people suspected of being too close to send fines to, even though it was due to another car cutting into a gap.

        Then they will be used for private companies to monitor workers 24/7/365, as well as whom workers interact with. Why bother watching FB when a contractor can just hand you high resolution video of where all your

    • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Gideon Wells (1412675) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:45AM (#38981231)

      Paraphrasing Scott Adams from "The Dilbert Future", written in the mid-early nineties:

      "In the future we will have mechanisms to observe and convict 100% of all crime. We will also quickly learn that 100% of the population is guilty of some crime."

  • by couchslug (175151) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:19AM (#38980295)

    "Eeeee! Teh dronz!" Ahem...

    Put the same equipment in a manned aircraft and it's a snoozer.

    Some appropriate Beechcraft antenna pron. I like antennae (328X0 represent!):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Beechcraft_RC-12N_Huron_in_flight.jpg [wikipedia.org]

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Exactly. This has to do with unmanned aircraft, which is entirely orthogonal to surveillance aircraft.

      Personally, I'd like to see unmanned cargo flights; there's no real reason why every UPS/FedEx plane needs any human beings on it at all. (Of course, I supposed that would have ruined the movie Castaway).

      captcha: "airmail". heh.

      • Until the automation fails and the plane crashes into a residential area.
      • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

        Being a pilot, I can tell you that there are things that happen regularly in flight that an unmanned, ground controlled craft could not deal with. A pilot uses all his/her senses when flying a plane, not just sight. Very often, if there is a problem, it is noticed as a slight vibration or sound. How would a ground controller pick that up?

      • by eth1 (94901)

        Exactly. This has to do with unmanned aircraft, which is entirely orthogonal to surveillance aircraft.

        Personally, I'd like to see unmanned cargo flights; there's no real reason why every UPS/FedEx plane needs any human beings on it at all. (Of course, I supposed that would have ruined the movie Castaway).

        captcha: "airmail". heh.

        Also, the fall from the UPS delivery drone to my front yard would probably be more gentle than the current treatment...

    • by FauxPasIII (75900) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:24AM (#38980335)

      > Put the same equipment in a manned aircraft and it's a snoozer.

      Interesting point. I guess on some level, we're hoping that with a manned aircraft, an egregiously and obviously illegal order to target U.S. citizens might be disobeyed or even made public.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:19AM (#38980303)

    ...as privately owned anti-aircraft missiles are also legalized :-)

  • Not cost-effective (Score:5, Informative)

    by captainpanic (1173915) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:21AM (#38980319)

    Why spy on your citizens when the overwhelmingly large majority never do anything seriously wrong?
    Seems this is not a cost-effective way to catch some bad guys.

    Of course, it is cheaper than have helicopters with a 2-man crew... but "cheaper than ridiculously expensive" can still mean "too expensive".

    • Why do police have patrol cars that just drive around? For one, it's a deterrent to those few bad guys; for another, it makes for a quicker response to a specific incident. Replace a few patrol cars with patrol drones and you could potentially reduce costs, improve traffic flow (all those dicks who slam on the brakes when they see a car with a light bar), and have a much wider area of coverage. Of course you couldn't replace all patrol cars with drones, but it's probably feasible to replace some.

      • The government only goes after the bad guys, after all. I know I want to be watched at all times.

        For one, it's a deterrent to those few bad guys

        That doesn't seem to be working in any noticeable way. Or, at least, not any way that I think is measurable.

    • by gambino21 (809810) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:54AM (#38980583)

      Seems this is not a cost-effective way to catch some bad guys.

      The real goal of this is not to save money. The goal is to make money for the drone companies, and to score political points for the politician that can say they value national security.

    • by forkfail (228161)

      Not about good guys and bad guys.

      It's about feeding the Congressional-Military-Industrial complex, and about keeping consumers [1] in line.

      [1] Consumers really is an interesting term for people. It views folks not as people, but as cogs in the machine. Though these days, we're as much product as we are consumes of product.

    • Spending (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 09, 2012 @11:20AM (#38981663)

      Spending is fundamentally different when you're spending other people's money. When you spend your own money (for example you own a business), you view every dollar as an investment and make damn sure every dollar is accounted for. When your spending doesn't bring a return, you stop.

      In the business of government, on the other hand, the people spending the money aren't spending their own money. They don't care where it comes from or where it goes -- what matters is that it passes through their hands, giving them a chance to exploit that cash flow for personal gain. The rules are different, the outcome is different, and the people making the decisions are different. They are there for personal gain, same as the private business owner -- but their business strategy is entirely different. Their profits don't come from making an honest return on every dollar. Their profits aren't tied to success or failure, but rather how much political leverage they control with those dollars.

      When the bureaucrat's spending fails to bring a return, this isn't a reason to stop. This is a justification for more spending.

      You're not in the business of government, are you?

      • by malilo (799198)
        Hmm. I usually come down on the side of "Goverments, or at least ours, are SLIGHTLY less awful/evil/corrupt that many of the worst corporations (having in mind Monsanto, etc), but I like your argument here.
  • Wonder what else is buried in it.

  • by Peter Simpson (112887) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:30AM (#38980385)
    View from a drone over the US:
    - people, looking like ants, moving about their daily business
    - drone operator clicks on a button, tags overlay on the image, connecting each "ant" with their phone number, sensed by nearby cell tower geolocation
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by whovian (107062)

      That's just the first layer. Now you also have names, perhaps also personal and social connections because you have a Facebook or similar account. It could be interesting for sociological studies and literally knowing who your audience is. The police state would be thrilled, too.

    • by Ihmhi (1206036)

      -science geek aims his direct TV dish at the drone
      -pushes switches and turns knobs on a mysterious black box
      -suddenly, the drone loses signal and crashes

  • by Anonymous Coward

    There was an article on the bbc yesterday about small UAV's being used to verify crop types etc etc for the purpose of auditing EU farming subsidies. Certain subsidies are dependant upon farmers keeping wide headlands of wild flowers etc and there is also a subsidiy called "set aside" paid for taking land out of production. They were saying that in countries such as spain which has a large number of small fields and hilly terrain UAV's were far more practical than satelite imagery (shadows in valleys etc) a

    • by Tokolosh (1256448)

      If you didn't have subsidies in the first place, this would not be necessary. This is how good intentions and government spirals out of control.

  • by 91degrees (207121) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:46AM (#38980519) Journal
    This in itself is not unreasonable. I can see many potential legitimate uses for pilotless drones both for law enforcement and such things as disaster recovery. In itself there's nothing wrong with this law.

    What is unreasonable is law enforcements desire to spy on everyone all the time. This is something that needs to be addressed, but it needs to be addressed directly. Not by attacking legislation that happens to enable it. We need to fight for legislation that explicitly sets limits on where the police are allowed to watch us.
    • by ewanm89 (1052822) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:09AM (#38980791) Homepage
      FAA has no regulations over privacy, it's not their department. FAA regulations are limited to air worthiness, traffic control, flying altitudes... And there is nothing in the current laws that stop unmanned aircraft from that standpoint (in fact, as unmanned predates manned flight technically, though it was unpowered) there have always been regulations to allow some form of unmanned aircraft.
    • by Renstar (142001)

      You are definitely correct here. Anecdote time...

      I saw a talk by a guy at NASA that was working on some bit of atmospheric research. He said that until recently, much if the in situ measurements were gathered by a human piloted modified U2 spyplane. Of course, there were big problems with this, namely cost per flight hour and limited flight hours due to fuel and the fact that the pilots would need to get out after 8 or so hours.

      Their solution was to get a 'civilian'-grade GlobalHawk, which he said served

  • by VortexCortex (1117377) <(VortexCortex) ( ... -retrograde.com)> on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:54AM (#38980587)

    The 8 foot high walls surrounding my backyard are the only things keeping me from being charged with exposing myself in public when I'm sunbathing in the nude to combat my pasty basement-programmer appearance.

    I currently have a reasonable expectation of privacy in my own back yard, even though aeroplanes and satellites pass overhead because they're most likely not actively recording video of the ground.

    Will children be prevented from accessing the drone footage? How can you be sure when such young hackers exist today?!

    Will they be publishing the planned flight paths of the drones so I can know when my reasonable expectations of privacy have become unreasonable? If not... Why Not? I'm not sure I want children playing in the vicinity of flying machines build by the lowest-bidder of a government contract.

    Additionally, I've been working up the plans for a very large parabolic solar reflector, capable of "flash-tanning" me in mere milliseconds, or even acting as a large out door oven. I won't focus the mirrors as high as airliners fly, for obvious reasons; However, I must leave the oven focused far above the ground to prevent children from accidentally burning themselves.

    Won't someone Think of the Children?!
    Without flight plans for these new low-flying craft, they can't possibly hold me accountable for such accidents involving the drones. I've done my duty by informing the government agencies of my physical address, and herein have publicly exposed my habits. It surely won't be my fault if a drone fails to avoid flying above my home, and gets caught in the path of my new death-ray...

    • by sgt scrub (869860)

      I've been working up the plans for a very large parabolic solar reflector, capable of "flash-tanning" me in mere milliseconds

      Something tells me your dermitologist is behind the new law.

  • Im all for this (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RenderSeven (938535) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:03AM (#38980723)
    ...as long as civilians get to use drones to watch the police, members of congress, etc. You know, the stuff we're supposed to do in a democracy.
  • Personally, I see drones as being being more likely to be deployed as cargo aircraft, traffic monitoring, environmental monitoring, and ultimately, as passenger aircraft.

    Sure, it's possible, even likely that the government will want to deploy domestic drones but frankly we as a populace leave so many electronic breadcrumbs from credit card usage to constant internet connects to carrying gps-cellphones I don't see a huge potential additional intel windfall from drone-format intelligence gathering (for the bu

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      I was thinking of fire fighting myself. Using drones for water drops and monitoring for forest fires. Also for search and rescue.
      Oh and for extra cell hot spots for disaster and large events.

  • by ewanm89 (1052822) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:05AM (#38980741) Homepage
    I mean, what is wrong with the current aviation laws in this regard, there is nothing stopping them operating unmanned aircraft under the current laws. They are fairly relaxed laws, one can fly any unmanned aircraft provided certain conditions are met (line of site, fail safe radio control, low altitude limit...), if one goes outside these regulations one must have flight worthiness certificate, registered pilot, contact air traffic control, transponders onboard... same as any other aircraft. There is nothing in the current (FAA) regulations as far as I know that would require a new bill to allow police and private companies to fly unmanned aircraft.
  • This isn't a problem unless the law allows government and private companies more power than individuals. Someone must watch the watchers. Is anyone here familiar with the bill?

  • Spy Satellites? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Amtrak (2430376)
    Ok, I understand the concerns about privacy and all but what can a drone do that a well placed spy satellite can't? If they want to have tabs on all citizens in the country the can do that already, from space. Or they can fly manned air craft. The US Federal Government does not need this bill to spy on you and though cost might be an issue does it really look like the Fed cares about how much it spends? What this is about is whither or not local/state governments, or private citizens can use drones. I for o
  • And then the government blames the crash on radio interference, and then demands that, in the interest of protecting children, we give up all our electronic equipment that might cause RF interference.

    In the meantime, in pirate-land...
    "Hey, wanna crash a drone? There's an app for that!"

    Dick Cheney, while trying to shoot down a drone over his house, shoots some guy he knows in the face.

  • EMF pulse guns (Score:4, Insightful)

    by wytcld (179112) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:49AM (#38981265) Homepage

    Please sell me an EMF pulse gun to use against any drone flying in my airspace.

    BTW, what is a property owner's airspace? How high from the ground does "No Trespassing" apply? It has to be more than just a few inches from the ground. How much more?

  • I juat want to paint a huge dick on my roof now
  • If one of these things crashes in my backyard, on my property, do I have the right to keep it?
  • If the government is going to hover drones over our backyards to watch our every move, then it is entirely appropriate and necessary for average Americans to park drones over the backyards of Congressman X and Giant Banker Fuck Y, and trace their every move and broadcast them live on the intertubes. But let's not stop there. MicroUAVs and cockroach/rat cams that worm inside their compounds and walls and listen to every shady deal and embarassing detail and relay that to the curious Public would be most ex

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