What privacy do you have left to lose? Beware the drone

Last week's column about The Google and its new privacy policy got quite a response, ranging from "I don't get it, what's the fuss?," through to "I don't care, I have nothing to hide," and "it's been pretty obvious for years where this was all heading but very few people bothered to sound the alarm ... until now when it's too late."

How to protect your privacy on Google

To the first and second groups, all I can say is good luck, your corporate overlords will be delighted to hear you think this way and the government will be stopping by soon to tattoo a Q-Code on the back of your neck.

As for the last comment, I sort of agree that it's all gone too far, but whether it's too late is a matter of debate. For it to be too late you'd have to assume that there is no more personal privacy to be lost, that the full scope of how you can be sliced and diced by the government and the corporations has been achieved. This is, thankfully, not the case.

So, what might erode your remaining privacy? In the seemingly endless parade of new threats, there's an issue that has been brewing for some time that's starting to become really big: Drones.

Drones are remotely piloted aerial devices that carry surveillance gear in the form of conventional cameras, radar, cellphone eavesdropping systems, thermal imagers, and UV cameras (and if the drone is military, it could well have guns and or bombs). They can come in the form of airplanes, helicopters and even balloons. They can be the size of bombers or birds (there are, not surprisingly, university projects that are starting to build flying devices the size of insects).

Until recently the deployment of sophisticated drones was pretty much limited to the military, but prices have fallen so much that battlefield tech has come back to the homeland. For example, as The LA Times reported at the end of last year, agencies such as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration now own or have access to drones such as the General Atomics Predator and have used them in law enforcement operations on American soil.

Along with these platforms comes increasingly advanced surveillance subsystems such as the Gorgon Stare which will eventually provide real-time monitoring of areas the size of entire cities!

Along with this "big boy" gear there's been an explosion of drone-type products in the civilian market. Consider the Draganfly X8, a complete and very sophisticated remote control helicopter system already in fairly wide use by law enforcement. This system is capable of hoisting a variety of cameras and other devices, can be easily transported and launched, and in operation is as loud at 3 feet away as the dial tone on a phone ... all for around $25,000.

What concerns many people is that having these kinds of surveillance systems without any kind of defined policy as to what constitutes acceptable use will almost certainly lead to abuse. In a Stanford Law Review article titled "The Drone as Privacy Catalyst", M. Ryan Calo, Director for Privacy and Robotics, Center for Internet & Society commented:

"Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. In 1986, the Supreme Court found no search where local police flew over the defendant's backyard with a private plane. A few years later, the Court admitted evidence spotted by an officer in a helicopter looking through two missing roof panels in a greenhouse. Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments."

So along with surveillance video, unauthorized wiretaps, cellphone location, and all of the other intrusive technologies, we can now expect to be spied on from above as well. Unless we get real privacy laws in place, the only real privacy will be when we're dead.

Gibbs might be in Ventura, Calif. Try to find him at backspin@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

This story, "What privacy do you have left to lose? Beware the drone" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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