10 February 2013

Spy in the Sky

by Leigh Lundin

Dones part 2: Spy in the Sky

Last week's article sparked debate both on-line and off. I hadn't planned a followup article, but from our friend Vicki comes another Hightower newsletter that addresses questions that have arisen. A couple of days later, the President announced he'd make available the legal justification for drones, presumably military UAVs. Now, a handful of officials in Washington, both liberal and conservative, are asking questions. How far can spying go?

unmanned Predator drone
Limitless, if we do nothing. Suppose your friend (because you wouldn't do such a thing), thinking her property is sacrosanct keeps a few marijuana plants in her back garden, away from prying eyes. What happens when her property's seized now that police eyes in the sky? Is this a warrantless search?

Sty in the Eye

What if a police drones sporting IR/UV capability peeked in your neighbor's house and discovered five people instead of three thought to be living there? It could mean Constitutionally protected free assembly, but it might also imply illegal aliens, a terrorist cell, or… visiting cousins from Michigan or a private prayer meeting.

Of course an armed UAV with penetrating audio capability might sort that out. Whether illegal pot grower, terrorist, teenage boyfriend, secret Christian prayer group, or someone wanting to get away from the spy machine– a drone can take them out with a variety of weapons from tear gas and tasters to live ammunition.
all-seeing eye
US Government seal

Posse Comitatus

Our military is not supposed to operate on US soil, but again, these fine points of the law have been swept under the carpet. Not counting a myriad of police agencies rushing to embrace these new gadgets, our own military has built 64 drone bases throughout our nation and the Pentagon plans to add 33% more in the next few months. Military bases, with drones, watching you.

And beware: Insect-sized nano-robots are presently flying in nano-technology laboratories. Leave a door or window open in the not-too-distant future, and they could be inside your house or your office. Singly, current weaponized capabilities are barely there, but en masse, the potential could be powerful like a swarm of bees. Recalling some of the sophisticated Soviet assassination techniques, might we some day encounter a nanobot that stings or drops a radioactive pellet in a cup of tea or glass of beer? (13:00 paragraph update to the original article)

We are supposed to have government oversight. The House Unmanned Systems Caucus, led by funded supporters of drone manufactures, doesn't view their rĂ´le as defending individual rights. Instead, they promote "the overwhelming value of these systems." They clearly state their intent to "rapidly develop and deploy" more UAVs.
© FreeWorldAlliance

Drone of Another Sort

In other words, your congressmen have become a Chamber of Commerce for manufacturers who want to spy on you. Lobbyists forced through a law written by the industry instructing a reluctant FAA to speedily approve new drones– brainless machines sharing the same airspace as our passenger airliners. Experts calculate drones will outnumber airplanes almost five to one. If a seagull can bring down a passenger plane, what can an electronics-packed drone do?

On and On

When the misnamed US PATRIOT Acts I and II were implemented with barely a whimper within Congress, a colleague flummoxed me when he said he was happy to trade civil liberties for better security. It reminded of a line in the film Little Murders where barbed wire was going up around apartment buildings and a character approved. "We're talking about freedom," he cries.

Yes, we are, but I'm not sure our definitions are the same. I welcome other opinions.


  1. Leigh, thank you for a very interesting post. I think you’re right to be ever-vigilant in the defense of civil liberties and personal privacy. I am, myself.

    That being said, I would point out that there can be little question that aerial platforms – manned or unmanned -- can also be of great assistance to police activities that you and I would undoubtedly consider quite legitimate, and I think it’s very important that we be equally vigilant in maintaining these capabilities. And, I apologize in advance for the length of my comment, but I believe this is a rather complex issue.

    Unfortunately (imho) -- even without drones -- some police agencies have used aerial surveillance platforms with IR to locate suspected illegal activities taking place on private property in urban areas, in manners that sometimes cause personal privacy concerns. Additionally, according to the NY Times, in an article printed some time ago, some municipalities and county governments have been using the satellite image application of GoogleMaps to adjust property tax valuation according to whether or not an unreported swimming pool or some other value-increasing structure appears in somebody’s backyard.

    Personally, I’m as troubled by the above, as I am by the idea that an employer has the right to read employee emails. Consequently, though I seldom speak in favor of increased legislation, I do believe we need to enact new laws to protect privacy in the face of burgeoning technology, even though the right to privacy may not be specifically guaranteed in the constitution.

    On a GOOD note: I’m sure you’ll be happy to learn that during my time in MI and SF, I discovered that the Army, at least, is quite scrupulous to avoid any violation of Posse Comitatus -- something that can actually be quite tricky at times, given the complex nature of threats that sometimes originate on foreign soil. And, while some things may have changed since 9/11, I have been repeatedly assured by buddies of mine, who are still on active duty, that this has not changed – quite probably (imho) because this safeguard is strongly inculcated into Military Service Academy graduates, which is also the reason I suspect this practice is common to all US military service branches.

    Pertaining to military drone bases, I rather suspect these are located near border locations in order to augment surveillance of illegal cross-border activities conducted over thousands of miles of open land. However, that would not prevent police agencies that had made agreements with the federal government from using these locations to store and launch/recover UAV’s belonging to them.

    Personally, however, I think the best course of action may be to concentrate on “right to privacy” legislation, rather than “anti-UAV” legislation, as I believe the former would probably be more inclusive. While an “eye in the sky” is not necessarily an evil thing, enacting legislation to ensure that surveillance of all forms remain within certain boundaries -- given the rapid pace of technological innovation -- is undoubtedly called for.

  2. Drones...
    It will be interesting hearing all the protests against drones on American soil - not many people are going to protest them over in Afghanistan or anywhere else the US chooses to use them militarily - considering that, as you mentioned, the Patriot Acts have pretty much suspended rights to privacy, whether or not people choose to realize it. And they don't, until it happens to them. (And they wonder why some of us old post-menopausal besoms scream bloody murder about little things like trans-vaginal probes and reproductive rights - but that's another rant...)

    Anyway, my personal take on it is that most people don't care what government does as long as it doesn't bother them in daily life - you wanna bomb Berzerkistan from a distance? Great. You wanna fire-bomb the Moves in Philadelphia or the SLA in LA (taking out whole blocks in the process)? Fine. (as long as it's not my block.) The trouble with any of the Bill of Rights is that, as long as daily life is ticking along normally, people have to be stirred up to care about losing them with a really big stick, like the media. Thus the current furor over the 2nd Amendment - which is not under serious attack at all - but not a whisper when the Patriot Acts wiped out a whole chunk of 1st and 5th Amendment rights.

    Personally, I recognize that drones have their good and bad uses. Considering the human track record of use of things that had such promise for good - TV, computers, internet - I think I know where this is headed...

    Get used to that buzzing in the background. They've got drones the size of hummingbirds, if not smaller. They've got them with various types of firepower. They're manned from a distance - thousands of miles away. They're "Grand Theft Auto" come to every town. They're unstoppable.

  3. Dixon, that is a sensible approach. In my first article, I said I was torn between the good and bad surveillance can do, but I always come down on the side of civil liberties. Rights to protect privacy make considerable sense.

    (In Florida, Code Enforcement's usual solution to undocumented (non-permit) structures is to tear them down and fine the owner. In the case of swimming pools, they fill them in and fine the owner. Naturally, grass won't grow over a filled-in pool, so the owner ends up with a sandy bare spot, quite a mess. Only after destruction of the structure can an owner apply for the proper permits with no guarantee they'll be granted.)

    Eve, you know I agree with you, too. Your comment prompted me to update the article with a note about flying micro-machines. Using nano-technology, engineers can carve gears and levers out of silicon– the same material used in computer chips– building brains and bones to create tiny machines. The physics at a micro-level is critical– air molecules become relatively large which affects the way nanobots fly (like bumblebees). Recalling some of the sophisticated Soviet assassination techniques, might we some day encounter a nanobot that stings?

  4. Popular Science ran an article fairly recently which I believe couched the same question concerning a nanobot that might sting.

  5. As I see it, like it or not, drones, like the Patriot Acts, are here to stay, and authorities, civilian and military, will find ways to use them for good and evil. I agree with Dix, we should focus on legislation that’ll protect our right to privacy.

  6. And there is, of course, one more thing to worry about with drones: what happens when other countries use them on us? That buzzing sound may be Chinese, Russian, Israeli, Pakistani, North Korean... the list goes on.

  7. Ach! Good point, Eve. They're so small and made of composite materials with relatively little metal, they easily invade airspace undetected.

    Louis, I'm afraid you're right– the things are here to stay. I wouldn't be surprised to see cutesy cartoon characters to tell children drones are their friends.

    Anon, thanks for the tip. I'll try to leaf back to find that article.

    One of my favorite technology newsletters is The Register out of the UK. They often touch on both social issues and nanotechnology.

  8. In a Florida case, the United States Supreme Court held that individuals on their own private property do NOT have right to privacy from police observation from public airspace. See Florida versus Riley.

  9. Not to negate some of your valid takes on this issue, please take a look at my recent posts on this exact same subject: toehallock.com


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