Micro-drones pose increasing privacy threat, but media coverage dissipates


A leading market research firm announced Monday that it expects the global drone market to pass $4 billion annually by 2025. It has been clear for some time that we are entering an era of increasingly pervasive unmanned aerial vehicles, but as the rise of insect-sized micro-drones looms, it appears little is being done to ensure privacy protections.

In early 2014, the International Business Times profiled some of the micro- or nano-drones then under development and production. “Aside from the larger military-style drones and the easy-to-see drones that the police use, nano drones will be the most dominant drone force in the future,” the article’s author Christopher Harress wrote, “and, as it happens, the biggest threat to privacy.”

That IBT article featured such frightening drones as a lifelike hummingbird model developed for surveillance by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which would surely be indistinguishable from a real bird at any significant distance. It included a link to a video of the hummingbird in action complete with ominous music.

Another video featuring similarly sinister music, produced by military contractor General Dynamics and posted to Youtube a few years ago, discusses “Micro Air Vehicles,” which it says “will play an important role in future warfare.”

“MAVs will be integrated into future Air Force layered sensing systems,” the video states. “These systems may be air-dropped or hand-launched depending on the mission requirements. The small size of MAVs allows them to be hidden in plain sight. Once in place, an MAV can enter a low-powered extended surveillance mode for missions lasting days or weeks.”

The entire video is eye-opening and more than a little creepy. It begins with a discussion of tiny drones’ potential for surveillance, before moving on to assassination capabilities. “Unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal: Micro Air Vehicles, enhancing the capabilities of the future war fighter,” the video signs off. Luckily, the video qualified that last statement: the future war fighter.

But as tiny drone technology steadily improves and becomes less cost-prohibitive, the immense threat to privacy posed by nano-drones and noted in the 2014 IBT article seems to be a fading concern in more recent media coverage of commercial and military micro-drone technology being developed in the U.S. and U.K.

While the word “privacy” is conspicuously absent from much of this coverage, the military threat of tiny drones is more broadly acknowledged, as Britain is reportedly developing an anti-nano-drone laser weapon, while the U.S. is looking into other methods. “One of the more interesting solutions so far comes out of Japan where Tokyo police are deploying drones armed with nets to capture other drones,” DefenseOne reports.

A little over a year ago, the website HowToGeek.com published an informative guide to the future of drones and privacy by Matt Klein. “If you have a long enough memory, you probably remember when we as a society had far greater privacy than we do now,” Klein writes. “Unfortunately, personal privacy is probably going to continue to erode, as technology becomes more persistently invasive.”

Klein discusses society’s tendency to become accustomed to new technology that it once would have rejected, giving the example of Google’s tracking capabilities. He advises against shooting down drones (though noting it has happened) but points to some other anti-drone options, such as signal jamming and “GEO fencing” services which “coordinate with participating drone manufacturers” to keep drones out of airspace above a given property.

“We’re skeptical, however, that this is really a longterm, viable solution,” Klein writes. “After all, it might keep a few casual hobbyists from peering in your backyard with drones from ‘participating manufacturers,’ but it’s not going to stop the government or police.”

Recently enacted drone guidelines, meanwhile, have received some criticism from major media outlets such as Forbes, for example, but this has not dealt with the issue of privacy. Earlier this month the White House hosted an event called “Drones and the Future of Aviation” to “advance and celebrate the potential” of drones.

Watchdog group the Electronic Privacy Information Center contends, however, that the Federal Aviation Administration is not doing enough when it comes to ensuring privacy protections. “The FAA has repeatedly acknowledged the privacy risks of drones,” according to a recent blog post from EPIC, “but has refused to establish privacy safeguards.” Considering the latest market research projections, maybe that has something to do with the emerging establishment consensus that drones have great potential value — as both a multi-billion dollar cash cow for the military industrial complex and weapon of the surveillance state.



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