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Wednesday, February 15, 2012


by digby

Matt Stoller Lee Fang at Republic Report has uncovered a very intriguing document showing that the drone plane manufacturing industry is writing the legislation that governs their use in the United States. They openly brag about it:

Drones are mainly associated with the Predator airships that patrol the Afghanistan sky. But thanks to a bipartisan vote last week, the public can expect 30,000 domestic drones flying over the United States in the next eight years...

Yesterday, we reported how the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVS), a drone trade group, actually doubled its recent lobbying expenses. Today, we report on a PowerPoint presentation put together by top AUVS lobbyists Michael Toscano, Mario Mairena, and Ben Gielow. The lobby group — which maintains an official partnership in Congress with Reps. Buck McKeon (R-CA), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), and dozens of other lawmakers — was the driving force behind the domestic drone decision passed last week. In the presentation obtained by Republic Report, there are several fascinating concerns raised by the lobbyists.

The report lists a few items, but this one has to be the most chilling:

Pages 10-12: The drone industry eagerly anticipates that civil drone use, including use of drones for “suspect tracking” by law enforcement, will soon eclipse military use of drones. Under a section called “Challenges facing UAS,” the lobbyists listed “Civil Liberties.”

If we are expecting the press to care about this, I think that's probably a pipe dream. In this NPR report (not the infamous piece Greenwald cited in his blistering critique)here's how it was dealt with when a caller asked about it:

FLATOW: Peter Singer, I mentioned that real estate agents were using them to take pictures of property. I would imagine that privacy issues are a big issue here with drones.

SINGER: Definitely going to be a big issue. I actually was talking a little while back with a federal district court judge who said very soon we're going to have a Supreme Court case around all this. And it cuts to that, not just, you know, private actors like a real estate agent using these or a couple of the border militias down in Arizona have used them, but also law enforcement agencies.

Already, a couple of them have gotten special licenses to operate them, Miami-Dade, Mesa County in Colorado. When the airspace is opened up, which is scheduled to happen in 2015, that means pretty much every local, state, federal law agency will have this kind of system.

The problem is our Constitution, you know, has the concepts of privacy and probable cause. The police aren't supposed to be able to look over your fence to see what you're doing in your backyard unless they have a search warrant, unless they have probable cause.

Well, now you have a technology that allows you to always peek over the fence. And so, you know, it really opens up some interesting, interesting questions we're going to have to figure out very soon.

FLATOW: Yeah, let's go to our next call from Isaac(ph) in Truckee, California. Hi, Isaac.

ISAAC: Hey, how's it going?

FLATOW: Hey there.

ISAAC: Well, I've been dreaming for like 15 years of doing aerial photography with remote-controlled helicopters, and I've gotten to the point now where I can. And I heard the point about the invasion-of-privacy thing, and as far as I know, there's laws against invasion of privacy anyhow. I mean, if I was to put a camera on a long pole, stick it up in somebody's window, wouldn't that be the same thing as putting it on a helicopter? I mean, the laws are already there, right?

FLATOW: Good question. Anybody answer that?

CUMMINGS: Well, I can...

FLATOW: Go ahead, Missy, (unintelligible).

CUMMINGS: Well, you know, because I'm challenged almost every day. I know my students are trying to fly around my window and spy on me. So it's something I actually have to lower my blinds for. And, you know, the question is - and this is why we need to raise it to this level of debate - I can put - my students could put a vehicle outside my window and have a zoom lens, and they could have it maybe 20 feet or 40 feet or 100 feet away.

And so what point then do - are you intruding on someone's privacy? Do you have to be right up next to window, or can you have a really long zoom lens?

ISAAC: You could have a zoom lens on a stick as well, you know, with some wires coming down to a pair of video goggles. I mean, it's all pretty much relative. If somebody wants to invade your privacy, they're going to do it one way or another, right?

CUMMINGS: That's a great insight.

FLATOW: So you're saying the law's there already, and it's just up to someone to test it out and see.

ANDERSON: My sense is that the interpretation of the law has been around the notion of reasonable expectation of privacy, which is that, you know, can you expect to have privacy behind a fence? And, you know, if the case is yes, then, you know, the law tends to protect that.

Presumably, as more and more things are flying overhead, that expectation will decline.
Great. Lower your expectations. It's always the easiest way to get through life.

The Republic Report find is important because it shows that the MIC group that represents the drone industry (a wonderful phrase, by the way) has simply bought off the congress and wrote the recent legislation that legalized it. However you feel about drones and civil liberties or the implications for warfare, that at least, ought to deeply offend you.

Update: This Stanford Law Review article discusses the privacy implications and posits that domestic drone use will actually revitalize the concept of privacy. I'm not convinced that in the age of Facebook that anyone will care much, but the article contains a lot of useful information about this topic if you're interested.