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Saturday, September 23, 2017


Eye in the sky, by and by

by Tom Sullivan

Armed MQ-9 Reaper from General Atomics.

Not the GoPro quadracopters mind you, I'm talking about the big Corellian ships now.

There is plenty enough to worry about in U.S. policing. A "get tough" president. A U.S. attorney general with a far too-interesting backstory. Racial profiling. The "officer survival movement." Excessive force. Shooting the mentally ill. And militarization.

On that last one.... Blogger Barry Summers and I joke that it will take a military drone crashing into a school bus before people begin to take this seriously. (Barry sent in this drone accident report shortly before this posted.) Or, alternatively, if a rumor got going that the gummint has a surveillance drone capable of seeing into Ted Nugent's gun safe and counting his AR-15s.

The former already came close to happening in Pennsylvania. The Washington Post chronicled their safety record in "Crashes mount as military flies more drones in U.S.":

Shortly after the day’s final bell rang and hundreds of youngsters ran outside Lickdale Elementary School with their book bags and lunchboxes, a military drone fell from the sky.

The 375-pound Shadow reconnaissance drone skimmed the treetops as it hurtled toward the school in Jonestown, Pa. It barely missed the building, then cartwheeled through the butterfly garden and past the playground. The aircraft kept rolling like a tumbleweed and collided with a passing car on Fisher Avenue. People called 911. The rescue squad arrived in a hurry. Luckily, no one was hurt.

The April 3 near-disaster was the latest known mishap involving a military drone in the United States. Most U.S. military drone accidents have occurred abroad, but at least 49 large drones have crashed during test or training flights near domestic bases since 2001, according to a yearlong Washington Post investigation.
That report on drone crashes is from 2014. This report from Defense One comes on the heels of the Charlottesville police helicopter crash:
By 2025, enormous military-style drones – close relatives of the sort made famous by counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq – will be visible 2,000 feet above U.S. cities, streaming high-resolution video to police departments below. That is the bet that multiple defense contractors are placing, anyway, as they race to build unmanned aircraft that can pass evolving airworthiness certifications and replace police helicopters. And if that bet pays off, it will radically transform the way cities, citizens, and law enforcement interact.
That has not happened so far because the sense-and-avoid technology required for versions of the big military drones, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, to fly freely in civilian airspace is still unperfected. But General Atomics has a lot invested in seeing their drones go commercial. Who, you might ask, could make that happen simply by waiving the sense-and-avoid requirement or by choosing not enforce it?

But freely doesn't mean autonomously. The General Atomics MQ-9B still requires a ground-based human pilot to fly it.
The newest version of the drone can autonomously take off and land. A single operator can both fly the plane and operate the “sensor ball,” a globe full of high-resolution sensors and thermal imaging sensors manufactured by defense contractor Raytheon. The newest version of the camera has 720p HD resolution, enough to show faces in a crowd from 2,000 feet up. And optics are rapidly improving.

During the MQ-9B test in Grey Butte, journalists peeked out the door of the ground-control trailer to the tiny, barely visible plane overhead. Back inside, the monitors showed that we could easily easily distinguish each another, pick out clothing patterns, discern other markings, etc. It looked like a view from 30 feet up, not 2,000.
That's what has privacy advocates on edge. For good reason.

Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore in 2015. Protests broke out a year later after all the police officers charged in Gray's death were acquitted. Some of the protests became violent. Persistent Surveillance Systems recorded them all with its eye in the sky:
... a small Cessna airplane equipped with a sophisticated array of cameras was circling Baltimore at roughly the same altitude as the massing clouds. The plane’s wide-angle cameras captured an area of roughly 30 square miles and continuously transmitted real-time images to analysts on the ground. The footage from the plane was instantly archived and stored on massive hard drives, allowing analysts to review it weeks later if necessary.

Since the beginning of the year, the Baltimore Police Department had been using the plane to investigate all sorts of crimes, from property thefts to shootings. The Cessna sometimes flew above the city for as many as 10 hours a day, and the public had no idea it was there.
The MQ-9B with its 79-foot wing span can remain aloft for far longer than 10 hours. Up to 40 hours or more, says General Atomics.

Last March, the Electronic Privacy Information Center sent a letter expressing concerns about the proliferation of drones to John Thune (R, SD), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, and to Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL). EPIC takes the FAA to task for failing to safeguard the public's privacy and safety:
Drones are now regularly equipped with high definition cameras that increase the ability of a user to conduct domestic surveillance. The DJI Inspire 1 is a high-end, commercially available hobbyist drone about the size of a small desktop printer and weighs less than seven pounds, yet it can transmit high definition video to an operator up to five kilometers away and can stream that video live to YouTube. Even lower-end hobbyist drones costing less than $100 can stream live video. The Hubsan X4 Star Pro, a drone that can fit in the palm of your hand, utilizes a front facing high definition camera with 720P resolution that can stream live video up to 300 meters away. Drones can be used to view individuals inside their homes and can facilitate the harassment and stalking of unsuspecting victims. Drones can also be modified with tools that can enable them to gather personal information using infrared cameras, heat sensors, GPS, automated license plate readers, and facial recognition devices.

Drones also pose risks to security and cybersecurity. Close calls between drones and traditional aircraft have risen significantly as their use becomes more widespread. Furthermore, the very features that make drones easy to operate also make them susceptible to cyberattacks. Hackers have the ability to exploit weaknesses in drone software to take over operation of a drone and access the camera and microphones.
Remember, EPIC is talking about small hobbyist and commercial drones, not the "big Corellian ships." But The American Conservative is. Texas Sen. John Cornyn's Building America’s Trust Act (introduced August 3) aims to put the southern border region under near-constant surveillance:
The bill would require unmanned drones to be flown at the border 24 hours a day, five days a week. That would effectively put anyone living near the border under a state of perpetual surveillance for no reason other than their geographical location. This is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.

Under this bill, each Border Patrol drone would log 6,240 hours of flight time per year. That would be a drastic increase from the Obama years. According to a 2014 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, four drones flown by Border Patrol logged a combined total of only 5,102 hours that year.

Not only does constantly flying drones near the border jeopardize basic privacy rights, it also takes an insane amount of money. The same December 2014 report found that Border Patrol’s drone program cost a whopping $12,255 per flight hour. That means, if the Building America’s Trust Act is passed, the government would spend $76.47 million per year, per drone at the border.
At roughly $12-15 million just to buy one, where does General Atomics expect local police departments to come up with that kind of money? What's clear is, General Atomics expects the money will be ready when their drones are.

As for how they might be used, a 1989 case involved a police helicopter spotting marijuana growing in a Florida greenhouse. The Supreme Court ruled that aerial surveillance evidence is inadmissible in court only if the helicopter is flying so low as to kick up dust and wind, becoming the equivalent of a home invasion, Patrick Tucker writes at Defense One. Not a problem with the persistent eye in the sky:
That’s good news for General Atomics and hawkish police departments, bad news for anyone concerned about growing surveillance powers of law enforcement. Even if the eye in the sky isn’t carrying Hellfire missiles, there’s something deeply dystopian about a machine whose cousin track[s] Al-Qaeda across Afghanistan [being] turned to track communities of color in places like Baltimore.
Plus, tech experts correct me if I'm wrong, but all that drone surveillance data routes through through an uplink to military satellites. Who controls those?
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet in that beautiful storage
* * * * * * * *

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