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Monday, May 13, 2013

What’s that up in the sky: drones in Rhode Island

Bringing beer or bringing trouble?
By Will Collette

Rep. Teresa Tanzi has introduced the first legislation to regulate the use of drones by state and local police agencies, bill number H5780. It is one of 85 bills or resolutions being considered in 39 states across the country on this controversial subject.

Her bill would forbid weaponized drones and would place strict limits on police use that are modeled on existing restrictions on wiretaps. 

This is a timely piece of legislation since there is widespread interest within law enforcement to get hold of drones and put them to use. Maybe not so much to remove bad guys from the board with a Hellfire missile fired from miles away, but certainly for surveillance.

The future debate over drone use seems destined to make the debate over technologies such as red light cameras seem dull by comparison. Like red light cameras, I don’t believe in a reflexive, pure civil libertarian view about its merits versus its deficits.

The new record holder for world's smallest drone
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), one of the more official names for drones, are hardly new. I think of them the same way I think about most technologies – they’re generally neutral and can be good or bad, depending on how they are used.

Kids have been flying remote controlled planes for decades, although there has been a quantum leap in the sophistication of these planes. For example, a new flying drone the size of a mosquito has just be developed by a group of Harvard scientists. It’s not only tiny, but so agile that it’s almost impossible to swat.

Rhode Island’s favorite cartoonist, the now retired Don Bousquet, and his son Nate have been using modified kid’s remote controlled airplanes to take aerial photos for fun and for commercial use – real estate agents love those area shots. Click here to see his photo gallery of Charlestown.

The OppiKoppi beer drone
Commercial uses of drones for such applications as exploring for resources, mapping and surveying and dark uses such as industrial espionage, are available now and will no doubt expand in the future. One South African company plans to use drones this August to deliver beer to patrons of the huge OppiKoppi music festival.

Congress has ordered the FAA to open up American airspace to drone use by 2015. That’s above and beyond – literally – the low altitudes currently open to UAVs. The FAA expects there to be as many as 10,000 licensed drones or even 30,000 by one estimate in the US by the year 2020.

I have fewer privacy concerns than many of my progressive colleagues, since I think privacy from aerial surveillance pretty much ended when the Union Army sent observers up in hot air balloons to spy on the Confederate Army. Fast forward to today and you can see just about anywhere in our community with alarming detail through Google Earth.

Police already use overflights to enforce highway speed limits, look for pot farms and meth labs out in the woods, or indoor grow lights used for pot cultivation indoors. Use of helicopters is common practice in many metropolitan areas, though that’s out of the reach of rural departments such as ours, where manpower is thinner and the territory to cover is larger.

Under Teresa Tanzi’s bill, police would have to hold a public hearing and receive the Attorney General’s approval to get a drone and would need a court’s approval to use it to target any suspect. There are sharp prohibitions on what kind of information can be collected or disclosed on any person or place other than the target explicitly approved by the court.

She described her approach to me as this:

I am solely addressing the use by law enforcement and have simply taken the wiretap standards and applied them to the possible future use of drones. The similarity, as I see it, is the silent tracking of citizens, which is ready made for abuse. A helicopter will get noticed, a physical search of your home will be obvious, the placement of a wiretap on your phone or a drone around your home, can be just as intrusive but far more insidious, I fear.” 

There are a number of public safety exceptions allowed, although I found these to be less clear than I would like.

I agree with Teresa that Rhode Island needs to be thinking about drone use now, and we definitely need a policy for their use and to prevent abuse. I think focusing in on the police is perhaps too narrow – as I noted, there’s potential commercial abuse of the technology if it’s used for industrial espionage. 

Generally, I feel my privacy is invaded more frequently – and abusively – by commercial enterprises than the government.

But I also see lots of positive applications by a range of government agencies in our area. Here are some examples:
  • After Hurricane Sandy, when the storm tore up coastal roads and devastated wide swaths of the shoreline, drone photos provided some of the first intelligence about how widespread the destruction was. I think this is a great use of drones in the public interest.
  • Area firefighters have been plagued recently by over a dozen suspicious brush fires set deep in the woods especially in Bradford. There could be an arson ring at work. Drones could be used to at least spot those fires earlier on and guide the firefighters to the scene. Drones might even help police catch whoever is doing this (although this might not be permissible if Teresa’s legislation passes).
  • We’ve all seen the frequent cases of a person suffering from some cognitive disorder such as dementia wandering off into the woods. Or lost children. Those searches could go a whole lot faster and perhaps with more consistent positive results if aided by drones.
  • DEM has told the beleaguered neighbors of the infamous Copar Quarry that despite dozens of complaints from the community, DEM can’t cite Copar unless one of their inspectors actually sees the violation. Answer: drones.
  • Every summer, we have a thin line of lifeguards sitting in their high chairs, watching over thousands of beachgoers. Maybe a life or two might be saved if drones are watching the waters for swimmers in trouble. Or maybe even sharks.
  • For folks who commute to Providence every day, there’s the daily frustration of traffic jams and the lack of timely information from RIDOT. With a drone or two, RIDOT could dramatically improve its timeliness and accuracy.
  • CCA Party President Virginia Wooten has been concerned that Charlestown hasn’t been properly monitoring all of the parcels of land it owns around town. Councilor Dan Slattery is afraid that people might be encroaching on Charlestown’s “phantom properties” with their gardens. Solution: drone patrols, although I would feel safer if Charlestown was explicitly prohibited from putting missiles on its open space drones.

As for the use of drones to find and identify criminals, I don’t have a problem with that. Again, many police forces use helicopters for that purpose. I also don’t have a problem with the police using drones to scope out a dangerous situation before sending officers in. We’ve had Charlestown Police officers get fired upon because they didn’t know what they were getting into.

I would hope that barricade or hostage situations would be covered by the bill’s exemptions.
I get it that we should all care about the “slippery slope” effect that seems to happen to so many policies, no matter how well intentioned the people and policy are when they first start out. Our national drone policy is a good case in point.

There’s an outstanding recent piece in the New Yorker on the subject. An early CIA supervisor of the drone program is quoted as describing how they started the drone assassination program determined to only take out the really bad guys, and only after they were really, really sure:

“In the early days, for our consciences we wanted to know who we were killing before anyone pulled the trigger. Now, we’re lighting these people up all over the place. Every drone strike is an execution. And if we are going to hand down death sentences, there ought to be some public accountability and some public discussion about the whole thing. . . . And it should be a debate that Americans can understand.”

The slippery slope. Drones are cheap. If they get shot down, nobody we really care about dies. If the drones cause “collateral damage,” again, it’s usually no one we care about. We can run the whole show from a computer room in the States filled with young nerds playing at a lethal video game “lighting up” the bad guys for points.

Now that we’re looking at the expansion of drone use to the United States on a large scale, lots of people are starting to ask questions across the political spectrum. You don’t get much further apart on the spectrum than progressive state Rep. Teresa Tanzi and US Senator Rand Paul, for example.

Paul recently did his little grandstand play, a live filibuster, for 19 hours on the Senate floor because he wasn’t satisfied with the answer he got from Attorney General Eric Holder about whether the US could use a drone to kill somebody within the United States. Holder said, yes, theoretically, the government could, but as a practical matter, it wouldn’t.

So Rand made his stand, got the attention he wanted and then promptly did a 180-degree turn: “Here’s the distinction,” said Paul. “I have never argued against any technology being used against an imminent threat or active crime. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and $50 in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him, but it’s different if they want to come fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone and they want to watch your activities.”

That’s not what he said during his filibuster, but I guess that’s the difference between political theatre and real life.

So already there's a market for anti-drone clothing that masks you
from their view. The main problem is that you look like an idiot
I have little patience with the privacy argument against red light cameras because I do not believe we have a reasonable expectation of privacy while we are using our government-issued driver’s license to drive our government-registered cars on public roads. Especially when we trigger the camera by running a red light.

I am also not opposed to surveillance cameras sited in public places. Yes, it may be creepy, but do we really have an expectation of privacy while walking down the street or the mall or other public place? I think the Boston Marathon bombings have probably boosted the likelihood for greater CCTC camera installation.

Anti-drone garb for women
Paparazzi make their livings by invading people’s space and privacy to take their pictures. Sometimes they do it from above. Again, very creepy, but not unlawful. Indeed, some of what they do is protected by the First Amendment. When we choose to be outside or otherwise in public view, we yield our privacy by degrees.  

There are legal remedies to the improper use of technology, though the pursuit of those remedies can be expensive and often unsuccessful.

Drone technology pushes the privacy envelop some more and demands thoughtful debate so I applaud Teresa’s foray into what has been uncharted territory in Rhode Island.

While the policy issues sift themselves out, there are also some more offbeat, free market solutions. Quite a number of commercial drone counter-measures are coming into the marketplace. They range from plans for devices that can blind the drones or shield you from view Oregon-based Domestic Drone Countermeasures LLC plans to sell black boxes that will not “allow the [drone] cameras to observe with any clarity”

Stealthware burqa - only $2278.35!
British fashion designer Adam Harvey has developed an anti-drone fashion line that he claims can defeat the thermal imaging system drones use to spot their targets. For men, it comes as a hoodie. For women, he has designed a cloak. Also hijabs and burkas.

All are made of metallic fibers that reflect heat and look like elaborate versions of the old-fashioned tin-foil hats some conspiracy theorists wear to defeat government mind control.

He recently held a showing in London of his new designer Stealth Wear.

Harvey started down this road in 2010 when he came out with his Camoflash accessories (handbags, etc.) that foiled the paparazzi by reflecting their own flash cameras back at them, blotting out the image. Then he came out with CV Dazzle which worked like face paint and make-up but was designed to defeat facial recognition software.

CamoFlash in action
Harvey told the Guardian of London that "The kind of person who would wear [Stealth Ware] it really depends on what drones end up being used for. You can imagine everything, from general domestic spying by a government, or more commercial reconnaissance of individuals."

Harvey’s stealth fashions range in price from $45.58 for a drone t-shirt to $2,278.35 for the burqa.

Good public policy usually comes from struggles to find the balance between competing though equally important rights and interests. I hope we can find a way to set policies for drone uses that maximize the public benefits to the community while protecting civil rights and personal privacy.

Debate on the merits of H5780 is a good place to start.