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Domestic Surveillance Drones Could Spur Tougher Privacy Laws 209

An anonymous reader writes "Have you ever been spied on by a surveillance drone? No? Are you sure? Maybe it looked like a hummingbird. Or an insect. Or maybe it was just really high up. Maybe there's one looking in your window right now, and if so, there's no law that says it shouldn't. In a recent article in the Stanford Law Review, Ryan Calo discusses how domestic surveillance drones would fit into the current legal definitions of privacy (and violations thereof), and how these issues could inform the future of privacy policy. The nutshell? Surveillance robots have the potential to fundamentally degrade privacy to such an extent that they could serve as a catalyst for reform."
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Domestic Surveillance Drones Could Spur Tougher Privacy Laws

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  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @03:55PM (#38426082)
    Only laws I would expect to be passed regarding such things is that it would be legal for them to be used on us, but illegal for us to use them. But perhaps I'm just a cynical bastard.
    • by Synerg1y ( 2169962 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:02PM (#38426146)

      That's the way it's been seeming, however, the 2nd article talks about something that is a little more constant, and that's the "tipping point". That's when the government is forced into reform by enough angry people that the officials cannot be elected again w/o reform. It's a shame it has to come to that though, and part of the issue is the government being so bogged down, the proper people may not even be aware that robots can be used in such a way, or that the local police has flying helicopter drones. There's a huge disconnect in the government when it comes to technology and they are not only trying to catch up in privacy, but in usability too. Just because they have helicopter drones doesn't mean they ever intended to spy on your average citizen, technology came before the laws, make sense? I think it's a bigger statement to the inefficiency of the government, and a lot less to malevolent intent. There's a lot better things to bash the government for, like SOPA.

      • by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:25PM (#38426454) Journal

        What is speaks to is that big government is FUNDAMENTALLY abusive. Once you have enough bureaucracy that the elected office don't know what is going on you lose accountability.
        People are generally good, when they are accountable, when they think none are looking or nobody will ever know it was them the results are often tragic. You don't powerful mechanism to keep doing right either, no more threat than the disapproving stares of others is usually required. Government needs to be small enough, it terms of both dollars and head count that its always and immediately clear who the responsible parties are whenever a questionable activity happens.

        Our modern representative democracy is really just a tyranny of bureaucracy. Virtually unaccountable, and above the law.

    • by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:03PM (#38426176)

      perhaps I'm just a cynical bastard.

      Well, the easiest way to show you are not would be to provide us with some sort of evidence that such laws have been passed before. Let me give you a hand with that: []

    • Only in the United Stazis of America. Such surveillance, even by your neighbor, is illegal in other countries. For example, here in Kanuckistan, a guy was spying on his soon-to-be-ex. He was sitting in his car across the street from his house. The police asked him what he was doing, and he said "That's my house. I'm waiting to catch my wife cheating on me with my brother."

      They told him it was illegal, even if it was his own house, since (1) he wasn't on his own property, and (2) he didn't have the consent of the people he was watching. They gave him a choice - move on or be arrested.

      Even private detectives are no longer allowed to do surveillance against individuals on their own property any more in PoutineVille.

      • by JesseMcDonald ( 536341 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @05:10PM (#38426922) Homepage

        It's hard to tell which is crazier these days—the USA or everywhere else. Normally I'd say the USA, but then I hear about someone threatened with arrest for monitoring his own house... What possible expectation of privacy can there be for something which can be seen from a public street, inside someone else's house?

        This whole "right to privacy" nonsense has gone too far. The right to privacy legitimately extends only so far as the right to keep things private. Once something becomes public, e.g. plainly visible from a public street, your desire for privacy no longer applies.

        • Ever hear of stalking? That's basically what this guy was doing - stalking his ex.

          Ever been stalked? I have, both in "real life" and online - real life stalkers are SCARY.

          A person has the right to go about their lives without other people sticking their noses into it.

      • Wow. As an American who's been trying to move to Canada that makes me sad. Is it not a bastion of sanity and forward-thinking? Let's see, no stupid wars, prostitution mostly legal, top freedom in all of Ontario, sane cannabis position, public health care.... sounds like a utopia to me. It's crushing to hear there may be down sides... really? All I've heard about is this French Canada place...
        • Stalking is illegal. Stalking your ex doubly so. How is telling someone to move it (and hoping they'll get a clue and not do it again) a threat to utopia? Do you REALLY think that people should be able to stick their noses in anyone's business just because they want to?
    • would be legal for them to be used on us, but illegal for us to use them..

      This isn't without precedent. Take the lawful use of force, deprivation of liberty... or life.

      Of course, comparing surveillance to murder/execution is like apples and oranges. Just where does one draw the line?
      In an ideal world we pay our representatives to decide these things fairly, but in practice, well...

    • But perhaps I'm just a cynical bastard.

      "The art of accurate observation is often called 'cynicism' by those who do not possess it." -- G B Shaw
    • I'm Canadian, so I'm getting a kick. Our Privacy Commission would never allow this.

      Also, you can buy helicopters with mounted cameras for $100 CDN at London Drugs.

  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @03:57PM (#38426096)
    You still need a warrant if the surveillance is directed at an individual. And if it's just patrolling, how is that any different than a cop walking his beat?
    • It's nice to talk about laws protecting us from the government, but in truth the only thing holding them back is fear of us.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Restavon1 ( 765808 )
      A police officer on patrol cannot film whats happening in your back yard or keep photographic records of your activities.
    • Re:Sounds like FUD (Score:5, Interesting)

      by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:10PM (#38426250)
      I believe the approach authoritarians use to justify new surveillance powers is to split hairs about the applicability of existing law. They make sophist arguments such as: wiretapping laws were written for switched-telephone lines and don't apply to packet-switched VoIP; the Fourth Amendment protects citizens' "papers" but electronic data such as e-mail are not "papers." So I think there is reason to be concerned that a court may rule surveillance drones are not constrained by existing statues.
      • by MobyDisk ( 75490 )

        This is somewhat a consequence of the education system.

        Lawyers today are taught the letter of the law, and the historical interpretations and precedents. That is good practical knowledge. But there is little focus on philosophy: Blackstone's commentaries, the writings of the founding fathers, epistemology, etc. As a result, the actual writing of the laws has suffered. It's like a badly written set of instructions (or bad code to a programmer). They are written very narrow and specific, like rules and r

    • Re:Sounds like FUD (Score:4, Interesting)

      by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:12PM (#38426268)

      And if it's just patrolling, how is that any different than a cop walking his beat?

      Do cops frequently flap their wings and fly through the air when they are out on patrol? This is yet another increase in the power of the police, at a time when the United States imprisons more people than any country in the entire world. This is not a question of FUD, it is a matter of whether or not giving the police even more power is a wise thing to do right now; those of us who still desperately cling to the idea that we have rights would say that no, this is not a good time for the police to be getting more power.

    • Re:Sounds like FUD (Score:4, Informative)

      by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:17PM (#38426328)

      You still need a warrant if the surveillance is directed at an individual. And if it's just patrolling, how is that any different than a cop walking his beat?

      Beat Cop: $25 - $50K to build(training), $50 - $75K per year to operate.

      Predator Drone: $15 million to build, $50 - $75K per day to operate.

      Dunno about you, but as a taxpayer, I see a "slight" difference here...

      • But. Drugs. And Children!

        Budget Passed.

      • He meant different with respect to rights infringement, not cost, jizz-squirt.

      • by Ksevio ( 865461 )
        They likely wouldn't be using Predator Drones - more likely the smaller sized ones that cost about the same as a new police cruiser. You're not going to see every police department with its own airforce.
      • Predator drones are serious overkill for routine police work, and their purchase and operational costs reflect that.

        I've got a sub-$100 RC helicopter with a camera mounted in it. Video quality sucks, it's too light weight to fly anywhere but indoors except on exceptionally calm days, and the range is abysmal. However, with a single order of magnitude increase in acquisition cost, you can buy an off-the-shelf products that will solve most -- if not all -- of those problems. Bump the cost up to two orde
    • Re:Sounds like FUD (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:19PM (#38426366) Journal

      You still need a warrant if the surveillance is directed at an individual. And if it's just patrolling, how is that any different than a cop walking his beat?

      Surveillance technologies bring two main changes to the table, even when otherwise analogous to some prior method:

      1. Economics: There is no legal problem with having cops walking 100% of the legally public beats 100% of the time. Economically, though, there just aren't enough cops to do that. In practice, one of the major protections from the state historically enjoyed by most people is not law; but simple lack of resources. It may be legal to have a cop follow you on a public road, and determine your route; but that cop isn't cheap, so you'll have to attract some suspicion first. Slapping a $100, reusable, magnetic GPS bug on your car, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly cheaper than having a $50,000/yr cop following you. Even if the two are analogous, the level of protection enjoyed in one case is far lower than in the other.

      2. Retention: Humans, by necessity, have lousy memories. Our eyes just slide right over mundane happenings and they fall away almost immediately. Storage of electronic surveillance data, on the other hand, is cheap and getting cheaper(and easier to automatically search). Trying to track the routes of all motorists in a city based on data from the beat cops would be essentially impossible. Doing the same from an equivalent number of license-plate cameras? Hard; but tractable.

      The crux of the matter is that, as cost decreases and retention increases, 'just patrolling' and 'surveillance directed at an individual' stop being distinct categories: the agents that are 'just patrolling' gather and retain enough data that (proactively or retroactively) turning that patrol into surveillance is essentially just a matter of doing the DB lookup. We haven't reached that point yet; but basically any advance in the cost or capability of automated surveillance technology moves us closer. Patrolling and targeted surveillance aren't fundamentally different, they are different because human agents are really bad at patrolling, and have to be given quite different orders if you want them to get useful data on a specific target. If an agent is good at patrolling, all people that pass within its view are effectively surveilled...

      • Re:Sounds like FUD (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Maximum Prophet ( 716608 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:48PM (#38426698)

        There is no legal problem with having cops walking 100% of the legally public beats 100% of the time. Economically, though, there just aren't enough cops to do that. In practice, one of the major protections from the state historically enjoyed by most people is not law; but simple lack of resources.

        Yes, but many, if not most Americans don't seem to know or care why you don't want 100% police coverage. There are two problems they don't realize. 1) Most people break a law or two every waking hour. 2) With any test, there will be a false positive rate.

        What if each and every time you went 56 mph in a 55 you got a ticket? Did you share your wife's prescription allegra because yours ran out? Is it even possible for any citizen to even know every law that might apply to them?

      • by Thing 1 ( 178996 )

        [...] turning that patrol into surveillance is essentially just a matter of doing the DB lookup. We haven't reached that point yet [...]

        Well, perhaps not domestically. Aerial surveillance, I read recently, is working great in Baghdad, where the occupiers had enough drones flying to completely blanket the city with coverage. As soon as a car blows up, the video is played in reverse, and they follow it back to the bomb-making factory, generally with explosive results. Look for this type of activity to come to your home town. Where I am, they already have DHS cameras down at the waterfront.

    • You still need a warrant if the surveillance is directed at an individual. And if it's just patrolling, how is that any different than a cop walking his beat?

      Given the technology invovled my guess it would be functionally about the same as a cop on every street corner 24x7. Now thats what I call a police state.

      • by finnw ( 415539 )

        Given the technology invovled my guess it would be functionally about the same as a cop on every street corner 24x7. Now thats what I call a police state.

        Police state doesn't mean "lots of cops", it means "unaccountable cops."

    • You're assuming an executive branch that respects the authority of the judicial branch. Considering that a leading presidential candidate [] has been talking about having judges arrested for rulings that defy his positions, I wouldn't count on that.

    • How is it different? Because now instead of hiring helicopters and guys with really good eyesight, the DEA can put up a few drones to fly around 24/7 streaming back visual and infrared feeds, to dudes sitting around monitors looking for those evil bad guys who are growing the wrong plants. Now the pigs don't even have to work to steal and rob from the citizens they "protect."

    • Another thing: you don't need a warrant to conduct *investigation* from public airspace. You don't even have to fly low, you can hover way up out of sight and just use a really good camera on a swivel mount, and watch someone 24/7. And all you need is a low level geek to fly it, who can be easily intimidated/controlled, rather than a real pilot (who is usually of the more independent sort) and crew (who might also need be corrupted.) So this tool just makes it far easier for the police/government to spy on

  • Frog metaphor (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @03:57PM (#38426098) Homepage

    More likely the frog-in-boiling-water metaphor will apply, as the gradual decline in privacy (up to the present and going forward) prevents most people from noticing just how hot things are getting.

  • didn't notice? (Score:4, Informative)

    by psin psycle ( 118560 ) <[psinpsycle] [at] []> on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:07PM (#38426214) Homepage
    In these parts, just before harvest, they fly around with army helicopters and peak in our windows looking for pot plants. The whole freaking house shakes!
    • Well, now you can rest assured that people who have feral hemp on their land will be arrested and imprisoned without your house shaking in the process! Be glad, citizen, that the loss of your rights no longer has to be shoved in your face!
  • More gov't abuse (Score:5, Insightful)

    by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:08PM (#38426222) Homepage Journal

    More government abuse.

    There is something absolutely wrong with the people, when they allow the government workers any more entitlements and rights than the citizens have. Since when is it OK for a private individual to stalk another private individual in their own house, setting up bugs and cameras and recording devices, etc?

    Realize this: if it's not OK for a private individual, then it's not OK for a government either. Government is just a bunch of individuals that have been given enormous amounts of power over other individuals.

    If you don't see a problem with some individuals having huge amounts of power over other individuals, then you have no imagination.

    • by vlm ( 69642 )

      If you don't see a problem with some individuals having huge amounts of power over other individuals, then you have no imagination.

      Or you're hoping to set yourself up as a quisling, like many members of the party I used to be a member of.

    • The US government, has been self-assembling and self-defining ever since the original construction documents were approved. (The Constitution)

      Despite that document describing that certain rights were to be retained by the people in clear language, the government has been constricting and restricting what those rights mean. By changing the meaning of the words, they can change the document w/o any additional discussion.
  • Moxie Says Dogfight (Score:4, Interesting)

    by loteck ( 533317 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:18PM (#38426342) Homepage
    In his interview, Moxie suggested building your own flying device [] to "engage" theirs. As far as aerial engagement goes, I can only interpret that to mean he suggests we take the fight to the air.
    • Congrats, you just advocated the destruction of police property. I suspect that anyone who shoots down or otherwise disables one of these drones will be arrested and imprisoned. Even if you just build a fancy laser system that tracks that drone and tries to overwhelm its camera with laser light, you will probably be convicted of a felony.
      • Don't use a laser light - those things are illegal and an outright hazard to piloted aircrafts passing overhead.

        Better to build your own roof lights. Just make sure that you accidentally include some very powerful IR LEDs aimed straight up.

        Or run solar water heaters on the entirety of your roof. Bonus points for running a hot water pipe spelling out a message to your local surveillance overlords.

  • Allows law enforcement to record citizens but beats citizens for recording them.

  • 4th Amendment ... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:22PM (#38426402) Homepage

    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.

    I'm sure people will come up with all of the ways in which the 4th Amendment couldn't possibly apply here (ZOMG, you're out of your house, how could you possibly expect privacy), but really I've always assumed that this is exactly where it should be applied.

    This whole "oh well, this technology bypasses the strict wording of that" is just moving the goalposts to sat that if it wasn't specifically prohibited, it must be OK.

    No warrant, no probably cause ... no dragnet and broad automated surveillance. The US isn't supposed to allow domestic spying without probable cause and judicial oversight. This record everybody and figure it out later is pretty much the opposite of a free society.

    Sadly, terrorism, protecting the children, and copyright all seem to more or less allow one to circumvent these things.

    • Imperfect Laws vs. Imperfect Enforcement. That's been the balance we've always had. Now, there's the possibility that we will have the same imperfect laws, but with near perfect enforcement. Eventually we're all convicts.
    • Exactly. Whoever wrote the summary and said "there's no law that says it shouldn't" kind of has the constitution backwards - the federal government can't do it unless the constitution says they should.

      At the local level I'd think the 4th amendment ought to count as a law.

  • hmmm.... (Score:4, Funny)

    by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:25PM (#38426446)
    How far above my property do I own? Because, as of right now, any "Flying machinery" within reach of my 12 gauge is fair game imo. I suspect DIY auto-turrents for under $100 will become more common additions to rooftops as well.
    • I don't know the laws where you live, but in my municipality, discharging firearms within city limits (with the possible exception of self-defense) is a crime. Not to mention that bullets, shot or slugs shot into the sky will fall back to earth with approximately the same velocity they had when they left the muzzle of your gun...meaning that a falling slug or bullet that hits a person or object will cause roughly as much damage as it would have had you simply pointed the gun at them...meaning you could be
  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:27PM (#38426468)

    Here is my answer to the inevitable "it's public, and you have no expectation of privacy."

    Suppose that the mayor or governor where you live doesn't like you, and arranged so that whenever you left your house, there was a squad car (or foot patrol) waiting on the street, and they followed you where-ever you went. If you go in a store, they're just down the aisle. If you go to church, they sit in the next pew. If you go to a bar, they are there a few feet away. At no time do they invade your house, or touch you, but they are always there, watching and listening.

    You have just described the life of a dissident in Eastern Europe, circa 1975-1985. If you think this is OK, or normal, or part of a civilized society, you are crazy.

    If you think that it is OK to do all of this with machinery instead of people, you are also crazy. It's no different if it is a goon or a robotic gnat.

    • by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:41PM (#38426638) Journal

      It is different, Its worse, eventually you will notice the goon. It might escape your attention for years that a small GPS tracker disguised to look like a fuel filter or something else the ought to be there has been attached to the underside of your car.

      • The good thing is, the way the roads are in my city, that GPS will probably get clobbered by one of the potholes I hit.

      • by Nethead ( 1563 )

        But wouldn't I notice the red flashing LED and the beeping? All the ones I've seen on TV have that.

        • Let me tell you about the flashing LED, because it's stupid. Obviously, Hollywood put the blinking on because it makes good TV.

          I used to work for a company that made GPS tracking collars for animals. The GPS would be recorded and sent out via VHF to a receiver up to about 20km away. (12 miles)

          The VHF transmitter on those collars used a voltage regulator to make sure that the signal is the right strength. Those regulators were $1.60 each. By staggering coincidence, a red LED provided the same voltage reg

          • by Nethead ( 1563 )

            You used an LED as a zener? How's that work?

              • by Nethead ( 1563 )

                Thanks for the link but the thread seems to advise against using LEDs for voltage drops. And I know how to use a diode for a voltage drop, I was wondering how to use an LED for regulation.

                • If you put a resistor in series with the LED, the voltage across the LED should remain fairly constant (I think), so you could put your circuit in parallel with it and regulate the voltage pretty well if your input voltage changed slightly. You're not expecting drastic changes, just slight diminishing in the voltage over time as the battery gets drained.

                  Just as a disclaimer, I was better with the computers than I was with the electronics in my ECE major, and it was a few years ago.

            • Maybe he couldn't find a zenner that could dissipate enough power.

              Or maybe he just didn't know that much about electronics.

    • They used to do this for quite a few targets of interest -- CPUSA, black militants, labor organizers, KKK members.

      Except they went further -- bugs, phone taps, mail interception.

      All in the name of freedom.

  • A hummingbird or an insect? A pellet gun and a fly swatter should do just nicely.
  • Maybe there's one looking in your window right now, and if so, there's no law that says it shouldn't.

    No? How about the laws used to restrain peeping toms? The placement of surveillance cameras by unauthorized personelle in places like bathrooms has been upheld as a privacy violation in many nations, and is illegal.

    Or the (victorious!) claims against Google's street view "surveillance" of homes that violated their right to privacy by mounting their cameras higher than "normal" pedestrian or vehicle traf

    • Why do so many privacy advocates go around screaming like Chicken Little about the falling sky of government intrusion and oppression, instead of creatively explaining how current law can be used to leash the hounds!

      Maybe because laws only leash the hounds when someone other than the hounds themselves are holding the leashes?

  • by mounthood ( 993037 ) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:52PM (#38426752)
    The Paparazzi will save us by abusing this in every way possible. The rich and famous have no choice but to tell the politicians to change the laws.
    • The laws will be changed so that only the police are allowed to fly surveillance drones, which will be defined so broadly that every model aircraft enthusiast will be committing a felony.
  • Who cares about drones? I already get nightly flyby's of the San Diego police helicopter. Worse yet, my house seems to resonate around 45Hz, which means that if the copter is in the air within a few miles of my house, I experience a low rumble. At least if they used drones I could sleep at night.

  • Expect the government to pass laws banning these devices... and exempting themselves from any such ban.

System checkpoint complete.