The day of the drone

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Drones, it seems, are sud­denly ev­ery­where. They have buzzed through the plot lines of Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion thrillers like 24 and Home­land, been floated as a pos­si­ble de­liv­ery op­tion by the on­line re­tail gi­ant Ama­zon.com, seen ac­tion in dis­as­ter zones in Haiti and the Philip­pines, and hov­ered men­ac­ingly over French nu­clear power plants. This once se­cre­tive tech­nol­ogy has be­come nearly ubiq­ui­tous.

With pol­i­cy­mak­ers in the United States and Europe com­mit­ted to open­ing civil­ian airspace to non-mil­i­tary drones, the pi­lot­less air­craft will only be­come more com­mon. So, it is cru­cial that the unique chal­lenges they present to civil lib­er­ties and pri­vacy are quickly iden­ti­fied and ad­dressed.

For starters, drones are sig­nif­i­cantly chang­ing the way data are col­lected. Un­til now, most civil­ian drones have been equipped only with high-res­o­lu­tion cam­eras, of­fer­ing po­lice of­fi­cers, search-and-res­cue teams, jour­nal­ists, film­mak­ers, and in­spec­tors of crops and in­fra­struc­ture a bird’s-eye view of their sur­round­ings. But that is about to change. Man­u­fac­tur­ers are ex­per­i­ment­ing with drones that can col­lect ther­mal images, pro­vide tele­com ser­vices, take en­vi­ron­men­tal mea­sure­ments, and even read and an­a­lyse bio­met­ric data. In ad­di­tion, some op­er­a­tors have be­come in­ter­ested in col­lect­ing “big data,” us­ing a range of dif­fer­ent sen­sors at the same time.

Mean­while, drones are be­com­ing smaller, al­low­ing them to in­fil­trate spa­ces that nor­mally would be in­ac­ces­si­ble. They can peek through win­dows, fly into build­ings, and sit, un­de­tected, in cor­ners or other small spa­ces. Their size and si­lence mean that they can be used for covert sur­veil­lance, rais­ing con­cerns about industrial es­pi­onage, sab­o­tage, and ter­ror­ism. The next drone that flies over a French nu­clear power plant might be too small to be no­ticed.

The price of drones is plum­met­ing, too. Al­ready, a ba­sic model can be de­ployed for no more than a few hun­dred dol­lars. Com­mer­cial op­er­a­tors, who want to main­tain good cus­tomer re­la­tions, have an in­ter­est in us­ing drones re­spon­si­bly. But pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als are likely to have fewer scru­ples about us­ing them to spy on neigh­bours, fam­ily mem­bers, or the gen­eral public.

Ac­tion is nec­es­sary. But, though the pri­vacy im­pli­ca­tions of small, ubiq­ui­tous, low-cost drones, equipped to col­lect a broad range of data, are ob­vi­ous, the proper re­sponse is not. Sim­ply ban­ning them would de­prive so­ci­ety of the many benefits drones have to of­fer, from their de­ploy­ment in danger­ous, dirty, or dull du­ties to their lower op­er­at­ing and main­te­nance costs com­pared to manned air­craft.

Us­ing drones for crop dust­ing, pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing, or most search-and-res­cue op­er­a­tions is un­likely to raise se­ri­ous con­cerns. But other ap­pli­ca­tions, es­pe­cially by po­lice, jour­nal­ists, and pri­vate cit­i­zens, clearly could. The sheer va­ri­ety of the tech­nol­ogy’s po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions makes it al­most im­pos­si­ble to reg­u­late with leg­is­la­tion alone. In­stead, in­ter­ested par­ties at all lev­els need to as­sess the po­ten­tial im­pact on pri­vacy, data pro­tec­tion, and ethics on a case-by-case ba­sis.

Well-mean­ing drone op­er­a­tors need to con­sider care­fully how their ac­tiv­i­ties might vi­o­late pri­vacy and breach civil lib­er­ties, and they should take steps to min­imise th­ese ef­fects, us­ing – to the best of their abil­i­ties – ex­ist­ing tools, such as pri­vacy-im­pact as­sess­ments. Data pro­tec­tion au­thor­i­ties, civil­so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, and pri­vacy of­fi­cers in busi­nesses and public or­gan­i­sa­tions should pub­lish guid­ance on drone use, as they have done for other ex­ist­ing and emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies. The guide­lines gov­ern­ing the use of closed-cir­cuit tele­vi­sion could serve as a good start­ing point – but must be sup­ple­mented to ac­count for the dif­fer­ent types of data a drone can col­lect. Drone man­u­fac­tur­ers need to play their part as well, in­clud­ing by pro­vid­ing guid­ance to as­sist users – es­pe­cially pri­vate cit­i­zens – in op­er­at­ing their prod­ucts within the bounds of the law. Se­rial num­bers should be in­cluded, so that drones are trace­able. Civil au­thor­i­ties should com­ple­ment th­ese ef­forts by con­sid­er­ing how ex­ist­ing leg­is­la­tion on pri­vacy, data pro­tec­tion, tres­pass­ing, and ha­rass­ment could be used to pros­e­cute op­er­a­tors who in­fringe on hu­man rights. Fi­nally, in­sur­ance com­pa­nies can pro­vide the right in­cen­tives by ex­plor­ing the mar­ket po­ten­tial aris­ing from li­a­bil­ity in the event of mis­use or ac­ci­dents.

The chal­lenge is both ur­gent and com­plex. The rights of cit­i­zens need to be pro­tected be­fore the mar­ket, and the drones them­selves, re­ally take off.

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