Drones, Amazon and privacy

December 4, 2013 |

The rapid and exponential increase in the civilian use of drone technology highlights the inadequacy of privacy protection in Australia.  Whereas American state legislatures are moving the fill the regulatory gaps regarding the use of drones in Australia neither the Commonwealth or any State Government has taken any, let alone any meaningful, step to consider the impact of drone technology on individuals, business and the community in general.  Even CASA regulations are rudimentary and inadequate.

The world today ran a story on Amazon’s proposal to use drones in future to deliver books.  Practical or not, the concept shows how advanced the thinking is in utilising the technology. It also highlights the legislature’s inertia.

The story provides:

ELEANOR HALL: Aerial drones with cameras are already being used to film news events like the recent typhoon in the Philippines.

But polite scepticism has been the response to corporate giant Amazon’s announcement that it wants to use drones to deliver packages to people’s doorsteps.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates says it’s “nice to have dreams”.

And the association of commercial drone makers and users says it would take years of research before unmanned aerial vehicles are able to navigate the suburbs.

North America correspondent Michael Vincent reports.

MICHAEL VINCENT: For a company that’s succeeded on its ability to deliver packages, Amazon is now aiming to take the delivery man off the road.

On American prime time TV, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has shown his latest R&D project. A fleet of 8-rotar drones or octo-copters, picking up small containers from warehouses and delivering them using no interaction other than an initial collection of GPS coordinates.

JEFF BEZOS: I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not.


JEFF BEZOS: This is early. This is still years away. Drops the package.

CHARLIE ROSE: There’s the package.

JEFF BEZOS: You come and get your package. And we can do half hour delivery.

MICHAEL VINCENT: He says they’re aiming to deliver products weighing up to 2.2 kilograms to anyone’s home within a 16 kilometre radius.

But the Federal Aviation Administration won’t consider changing laws allowing commercial drone use until two years from now.

JEFF BEZOS: I know it can’t be before 2015, because that’s the earliest that we could get the rules from the FAA. My guess is that’s probably a little optimistic. But could it be four, five years? I think so. It will work, and it will happen, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Even Jeff Bezos says he realises massive research will be needed on safety before this is all possible, because he says no-one wants one to fall out of the sky onto their heads.

Another Silicon Valley billionaire, Bill Gates, agrees.

BILL GATES: Tech pioneers dream big dreams. And I think he’s allowed to have a vision there. And it’d be great if we can come anywhere close to that for a lot of products.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Bill Gates also says there’s more than commercial opportunities available.

BILL GATES: It’s not just books. It’s getting health supplies out to people in tough places. Drones overall will be more impact than what I think people recognise in positive ways to help society.

MICHAEL VINCENT: The popularity of using drones for civilian or commercial uses is taking off.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has many big aerospace players like Raytheon and Sikorsky backing it.

Association CEO and president, Michael Toscano, says Amazon is years away from getting what it wants.
He says agriculture and mining, even search and rescue, will be at the forefront of testing the reliability and safety of drones.

MICHAEL TOSCANO: Those things where you may have operational environments that are not heavily populated. So let’s just take precision agriculture. In the first three to five years of flying international airspace, the prediction is 80 per cent of all utilisation will be done with precision agriculture.

So there’s a good reason why you would use them for that application, because one, there’s not a whole lot of human beings that are going to be present in the middle of large fields. And two, there are no privacy issues, since corn doesn’t mind if you watch it. So there’s a great application for us to get a lot of hours of understanding, utilisation of the technology and get a benefit.

MICHAEL VINCENT: But currently, don’t we use helicopters for search and rescue? Don’t we use helicopters for mapping, for agricultural purposes?

MICHAEL TOSCANO: Correct. We do. And what you find is there’s two factors. One is right now in the United State we have about 18,000 law enforcement entities and about 30,000 fire fighters. But as far as law enforcement goes, out of the 18,000 entities, only 600 or less have air assets. So what you can now do is make this available to every law enforcement entity or every fire department or every search and rescue.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Amazon was pushing for the idea that this could get done in the next couple of years. That the FAA in the US would approve it. But do you think that’s realistic, given as you’ve talked about, the need to go through this process of using drones in areas where there aren’t people before bringing them into heavily populated areas, purely because they could drop out of the sky?

MICHAEL TOSCANO: I would say that until we understand what the safety requirements are going to be, and knowing what they are right now today, I would say 2015 is probably unrealistic. I would say that. But can it be done under certain conditions or operational environments? The answer is yes.

And when you talk about, what you’re looking at, this is a delivery system. So if I just ask you to take a step back and say ok, what are all the things that we could deliver – medicine, food, cell phones, obviously you’ve seen on the commercial side there’s been taco-copters, pizza delivery, beer delivery.

So what you’re saying is that I have the capability of a much better way of doing delivery of whatever the good is. So whether it’s because of Amazon or the Red Cross or someone else – this allows you to be able to do things in a much more timely, cost effective and efficient way than we’re used to doing before. And it could save lives.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Beyond safety, what do you think the biggest hurdle is going to be for you and the companies you represent? Do you think it’s going to be the issue of privacy, of people concerned that drones passing over their houses will be photographing them or filming them? Or do you think it’s going to be noise pollution, visual pollution?

MICHAEL TOSCANO: Privacy is something that has been identified. And I would contend to you there are already privacy laws that exist. There are peeping Tom laws. And that’s true with any technology that we’ve ever experienced. I just think this a tremendous opportunity for us to advance this technology. And if you looked at all of the positive applications that this technology opens up, so people know how to do their job better than anyone else. What this technology gives you is a commodity that helps you do that job better.

ELEANOR HALL: That’s the head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Michael Toscano, speaking to our North America correspondent Michael Vincent.

Interesting to see how the industry representative  view on privacy is “I would contend to you there are already privacy laws that exist. There are peeping Tom laws.”  Appalling grammar aside, Toscano’s commentary on privacy law the unfortunate reality (rather than rhetoric) is that the protection it provides is limited bordering on meaningless.  Privacy laws may exist, but are utterly ineffective when dealing with many of the activities that drones would perform and the small business operators who will peform them.  What exactly are the peeping Tom laws to which he refers?  In any event an operator does not have to be a Peeping Tom to invade a person’s privacy.

Industry advocates are all about using the technology to the limit of its operational and business capacity.  That’s fine.  Self interest coupled with the profit motive has a place.  Such entrepenuers are generally perfunctory in their consideration of privacy issues.  It gets in the way of progress as they see it.  So waffle is almost invariably their default position; the laws are adequate, the operators are responsible, the sky is blue most days…. Meaningless nonsense.  And Toscano has followed the playbook to a tee.  On any analysis owners and operators of drones can’t be relied upon to regulate themselves.  It won’t work.  The legislature needs to comes in.  To tame the wilder spirits of such operators and provide balance.  Not to mention protecting other individuals rights.  With drones however the legislature has failed to rouse itself.

The ABC’s 7.30 program has done a subsequent take on the subject with Amazon’s drone delivery plan sparks privacy debate in United States which provides:

Amazon isn’t the first company to come up with the idea of delivery by drone.

Domino’s Pizza floated the idea last year (although that was more marketing exercise than reality).

Australian start-up company Flirtey has an entire business plan based on delivering textbooks by drone – and are currently trying to get approval from the Australian regulator CASA to take off.

If they get the go-ahead, they’ll be one of dozens of Australian companies already using drones for business.

But while commercial drones have been legal in Australia for more than a decade, they’re still banned in the US – and will be until at least 2015, when the FAA is due to lay out the rules on how they will share the most crowded airspace in the world.

But Amazon’s announcement was a game changer for a couple of reasons.

When one of the biggest retailers in the world, and the leader in home delivery, says it’s putting drones into its business model, people start taking the idea a lot more seriously.

People in this industry-in-waiting talk about how drones are going to change our lives in ways we can’t yet imagine – as they gradually take on jobs we humans decide are too dirty, difficult, dangerous, or expensive.

Jerry Lemieux is a retired US Air Force Colonel who now heads up the Unmanned Vehicle University in Phoenix, Arizona.

“As soon as they open up the air space in America, there will be an explosion,” he said.

“There is already a forecast of 70,000 jobs in three years, and a $13 billion impact to the US economy. And I think that’s a low number.”

Citizens remain concerned about privacy threats

Amazon’s announcement has ignited a debate that’s been quietly simmering in the US over what all those eyes in the sky are going to mean for personal privacy.

And this is a country that takes privacy very, very seriously.

Civil liberties campaigner Michael Khavari says threats to privacy are among his chief concerns regarding the use of drones.

“Drones are able to pick up on all sorts of things,” he said.

“Wireless signals from your cellphone, thermal imaging, license plate recognition, facial recognition.

“And even then, drones can be outfitted with these devices that can see through walls, with thermal imaging.

“Aside from your home, you’re really not going to have any place that’s private anymore.”

Mr Khavari’s lobbying helped Charlottesville, Virginia become the first municipality in the US to ban drones from its skies.

Another town in Colorado went slightly further – issuing drone hunting licenses for people who want to shoot them out of the sky.

Aside from your home, you’re not really going to have any place that’s private anymore.

Michael Khavari, civil liberties campaigner

 If it all sounds a little paranoid, consider the context.

The word ‘drone’ is still mostly associated with the killing machines used so effectively by the US military in Afghanistan and Yemen.

On home soil, the early adopters of drones have been law enforcement agencies – most famously in North Dakota, when a local sheriff called in a military drone to help capture a family of cattle rustlers.

Throw into that volatile mix Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of US government spying on its own citizens, and you have a problem that goes well beyond a few rural town councils.

Texas state senator Lance Gooden wrote the bill that passed the state legislature this year restricting what can be done with the images captured by drones – including by police.

“Once every police department and every governmental agency has drones, we will never get rid of them, we will never be able to regulate them,” he said.

“In Texas, police can’t use drones to enforce traffic.

“They have to get a warrant. They have to say how the images are being used, how they are being stored, how they are captured.

“If law enforcement searches 300 houses at random every night, they are probably going to find something.

“But does that mean they should be able to?”

Eight other US states have followed Texas and passed their own anti-drone laws.

In the countdown to the launch of commercial drones, it is likely more states will rush to do the same.

It has been a perfect storm the massive US aerospace industry could never have predicted.

Industry talk up positive uses to change the narrative

And it’s now frantically trying to change the narrative – talking up the potential of drones to improve people’s lives.

They talk about positive uses – like firefighting, tornado warnings, and search and rescue. They talk about how farmers will be able to save money and use less pesticide by cropdusting small areas, rather than whole paddocks.

But the possibilities are limitless.

“You can use solar-powered fuel cells and alternative power systems to keep UAVs up in the air for very long periods of time,” Mr Lemieux said.

“Take an internet hub, put it on a UAV, and now go over a major city. And you are a new internet service provider. You capture 5 per cent of the market, it’s $100 million.”

Perhaps, if local laws allow you to do it.

And Mr Gooden makes no apology for rushing the Texas bill into law.

“I have seen how difficult it is to pass something when there is a well-funded lobby working against it,” he said.

“The drone industry isn’t there yet.

“So that’s one of the reasons we really wanted something on the books now – before it becomes virtually impossible to pass a bill.”

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