Drones and privacy

February 15, 2014 |

The transition of drone technology from military to civilian usage occurred some time ago (in technology time measurement).  Its use is becoming more and more ubiquitous in its commercial use.  In Journalism gets into the act as drones capture floods, protests and wars the Guardian looks at the use of drones in journalism reportage.

The article, absent video footage, provides:

Journalism gets into the act as drones capture floods, protests and wars

Major media outlets have started to put serious effort into exploring the use of drones for reporting and verifying news

They’ve been hailed as the future of journalism, with industry insiders predicting they’ll be in common use by the end of the year. So far, they’ve captured the scale of the floods, protests in Kiev and Bangkok, and even been used in pre-budget news reports, but don’t expect them to replace the Sky Copter just yet.

Drones, helicams, hexacopters, octocopters or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as they are sometimes known, are small remotely-controlled devices with a camera attached. Having been in use by hobbyists and photographers alike to capture stunning aerial images for several years now, major media outlets have started to put serious efforts into exploring their use for reporting and verifying news. Robert Picard, co-author of a report on the use of drones for news gathering, has predicted they’ll be in frequent use by the end of 2014.

“Things are moving,” he says, “and I suspect photo departments and broadcast news production will be using them more often this year. Most of the big broadcasters are already test using them and some print photographers are learning how to use smaller systems.”

The BBC hexacopter made its news debut in October 2013, and was developed and tested by Thomas Hannen, senior innovations producer in its global video unit.

“It’s an exciting new way to tell stories, taking us from a human level to a birdseye overview.” So far, the BBC has used drones to capture the HS2 route, unique aerial shots from Stonehenge, and for
a “Soccer Cities” project underway in Brazil.

“Although it may not revolutionise news, it is certainly another tool in the journalist toolkit, particularly useful for stories for transport or with environmental and geographical elements to them. But, we don’t see them as a replacement for a news helicopter.”

Sky News has a dedicated team of three looking into the opportunities for news reporting offered by technological advances such as drones and Google Glass. They are currently in the process of training their own in-house drone pilot.

Steve Bennedick, Sky News head of news technology, says that while the project is in an “embryonic form”, they are enthuasistic about the technology. “Obviously safety is paramount, we’re going along very carefully. But it’s a new way to get that wow shot, and why not offer an extra dimension to your news coverage?”

Russia Today, which have been exploring drone use for several years, has recently covered protests in Turkey and Ukraine to test the technology. “Since the 2013 launch of RT’s video news agency (Ruptly), we have been widely testing drone technology and plan to use it in the nearest future in a number of territories where the use of drones for civil purposes does not violate legal restrictions,” a spokesman told Media

“The kind of content that drones can deliver is generally well-received by [the] RT audience. But while this technology has several clear advantages, particularly those of access, it is not without its challenges. There
are legal limits to drone journalism in many countries, including the United States and Russia.”

Despite the obvious potential benefits of drone journalism – as a low-cost method to obtain stunning images, a way of covering conflict zones with reduced risk to reporters, among others – it does have dangers and drawbacks. Last month in Cape Town, South Africa, a man was reportedly nearly knocked off the roof of the Civic Centre by a drone attempting to capture footage and the news crew responsible later arrested.

Legal restrictions are in place in many countries, including the UK, to stop this type of incident, but some laws go further. In the US, drone journalism is considered a commerical activity, and as such is currently banned under Federal Aviation Authority rules.

In the UK, journalists are less restricted, although flying a drone with a mounted camera does require a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority. In obtaining that licence, a news outlet is promising to adhere to certain guidelines – not to fly it out of direct line of sight of the operator, not to go within 50 metres of a building or property without permission, and certainly not to fly over crowds of people.

Asked if drones were the mode of the future for journalism, Dean Wynton, a pilot for Aerosight
and an aerial photography specialist who has worked with the BBC and other broadcasters, and the man behind the Domino’s “Domnicopter” advert which went viral last year, said “it will never happen”.

With 17 years’ experience of building and flying drones, he explains, “the technology simply isn’t ready to tackle live broadcasts, 10 minutes at a time is the most you’ll get out of a drone, and until battery technology improves, it certainly won’t be ready for a good few years yet.” As for flying over crowds of people, “it can still kill someone,” he says. “We’re talking about a machine, which can fail like any other.
You need landowner’s permission to take off and land, you can’t fly within 50 metres of property. It usually takes 21 days at least to get all of the permissions you need.”

However, the rules are bound to change as the use of drones becomes more commonplace. Former GCHQ boss, Sir David Omand, is now head of the commission on drones. Security grounds aside, he says the commission is likely to hear evidence on the use of drones for journalistic purposes.

Since the committee launched last September, Omand has pinpointed a specific group that causes concern:
“The equipment – say, an ultralight type drone with a small HD camera that can beam pictures back to a laptop – are all available at prices the paparazzi can afford. So its only a matter of time before we see its use. Just think of President Hollande’s exposure.

“There is law relating to harrassment and there could be claims that human rights privacy have been breached. But as yet all are untested in this new context.”

For all the gushing about the new use of the drone technology a key, and largely ignored by the legislature, issue is the protection of privacy from the inevitable abuse of this technology. In a wide ranging piece in the Guardian titled Worried about your privacy? Wait until the drones start stalking you the interaction, or collision, the impact of this new wave of technology on privacy is clear, present and growing.

It provides:

Google’s Street View and Facebook push the private into the public. Now watch out for tiny flying cameras

We live in an age increasingly shaped by our attitudes to, and our definition of, privacy. It is arguable whether the state of privacy itself has ever been more comprehensively and routinely challenged, and in many ways our changing relationship with technology is at the heart of this.

Reviewing the privacy controversies of the last few years reveals how far our sense of acceptable “inversion of privacy” has shifted. Take Facebook, its billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg wallowing in the glory of his first decade in charge of one of privacy’s biggest agents of change. Users first revolted when the site introduced the newsfeed — yet now it feels rather benign in terms of its challenge to our sense of privacy, as well as being the main reason for visiting the site.

The boundary between the public and the private is porous, a slew of privacy levels to dial round and push back, depending on the audience; one person might be happy to overshare baby photos publicly, while another won’t entertain being part of Facebook’s semi-public “friends” discussion. The company’s developer-first principle of pushing out a feature and then adapting it after feedback from users may have been good for business, but has also helped edge back the boundaries of what we define as public.

Zuckerberg back-pedalls

Now that we have all largely accepted the oversharing norm, Zuckerberg himself – who not so long ago claimed that privacy was over – seems curiously to have back-pedalled, introducing anonymous logins for some of Facebook’s new apps.

“If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden,” he told Businessweek last month, acknowledging the competition from lower-profile, anonymous chat tools such as Snapchat.

Google has navigated a galaxy of privacy scandals. At one end of the spectrum, its Street View cameras have inadvertently recorded public sex acts, nose-picking, and a naked man climbing in the boot of his car – and at the other end of the scale had to reassure consumers after a more prescient scandal about them sucking up personal information from unsecured wi-fi networks.

Ultra-smart gadgets

Google has pledged that Google Glass, its internet-connected tech specs, won’t have image recognition switched on because of privacy concerns. “Well, never say never, but we have said we wouldn’t do it,” executive chairman Eric Schmidt said when I asked if that was a permanent commitment. And then there’s last month’s acquisition of Nest Labs, which makes ultra-smart gadgets for the home. Nest started with an internet-connected thermometer and then made a similarly wired-up smoke alarm; does this mean Google now has access to data inside your personal, physical space too?

“These are conspiracy theories,” Schmidt told me at the time. Crucially, his explanation was that Google relies on trust — lose that trust and Google loses the consumer.

Just as privacy isn’t absolute, neither is trust. We find different levels of appropriate privacy or publicness and, as consumers, we need to trust a company only enough to give it our data. If the person using the site doesn’t have any experience of revealing too much, or needing to keep some kind of issue private, that can’t be a fair exchange to make. Schmidt used teenagers as an example.

‘It’s not OK to invade privacy’

“Teenagers are not legally an adult for a reason. My advice to parents would be to know their passwords and monitor what they are doing.”

He said that with a straight face, but it’s a suggestion that will no doubt have the parents of teenagers rofling. Schmidt claims 90% of privacy violations are self-generated.

“It’s not OK fundamentally to invade privacy – just because we have the tools to invade privacy that doesn’t make it right.”

All these developments are framed by the biggest technology story of the decade – that our online lives are accessed, monitored and stored by the UK and US security services. So we face surveillance in our online world, on our mobiles, on the street through CCTV and perhaps next in our own internet-connected smarthomes, plus social scrutiny of the parts of our lives we choose to display on social networks. Surely there can’t be more to come?

Well, the next privacy scandal in waiting is the story of drones. Not military drones, but increasingly widespread use of drones for agriculture, disaster areas and emergencies, archaeology, forestry and property management, among others.

Drones are banned in London and can’t be used below a certain height in residential areas. But how many uses could there be for a small, silent, fast, remote-controlled drone? How long before the first sunbathing politician is snapped on holiday? If the public is banned from a venue, or refused access to private land, or if a property is under siege from journalists, how long before a drone is used for high-quality aerial video?

The next time you step outside and head off for some time alone, remember to look up.

Interestingly I will be attending a conference on UAV’s in Adelaide on Monday 17th February 2014.

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