Smile For the Camera, Citizen

The last few years have not been good to people who care deeply about privacy. Every few months, some new story comes to light about how corporations or government are gathering, sorting, and storing huge amounts of information about us. After a brief spate of interest, people generally go back to what they were doing before. "My iPhone is tracking my movements? Wow, that's creepy. But is Siri awesome, or what? I can't wait for the iPhone 5..." But what if the invasion of your privacy was a little more physical? Alexis Madrigal suggests that when drone aircraft start buzzing over our houses, we may finally get off our duffs and demand some limits to the spying:

Drones, in my mind, make it clear how many of our feelings about privacy rest on the assumption that surveillance is time consuming or difficult. If someone smokes a joint in her backyard, she [is] making the (pretty good) calculation that a police officer is not watching. In our cars, we assume we can quickly send a text message at a red light or not wear our seatbelts for a few minutes or drive a few miles over the speed limit. We don't expect that someone is watching our every move and that gives the law some give, a bendiness that reflects it's a human construction...

Let's look at one example of how drones change the privacy equation. We tend to think of our homes as having a perimeter. Property maps are two-dimensional, we talk about property lines as if they were burned into the ground. There are access points in two-dimensional space—paths and roads—that channel visitors through a small number of places. We can build fences or plant hedges and they need not be high to mark the territory out.

A flying drone with a zoom lens, though, makes that whole sense of two-dimensional privacy an anachronism. If one wanted privacy from the government or other citizens, one would have to defend the entire volume of airspace reaching up from one's property to several hundred feet up, if not much farther. This vastly increases the cost of physically hiding one's activities.

Quite so. But if ordinary people are going to restrain the use of surveillance drones over our domestic airspace, we'd better get on it. Police departments that have spent the last decade militarizing their operations are chomping at the bit to get some eyes in the sky—think how helpful it could be to have a drone following a fleeing suspect, or hovering over a drug corner. Private companies are getting into the act too, for things like photographing properties for sale. And I'll bet it won't be long before corporations find all kinds of creating uses for drones, like tracking our movements and habits in public spaces to gain new insights into consumer behavior.

Does that creep you out? Well, it should. Part of being an autonomous individual is knowing that you aren't always being watched. Yet we've put up with the proliferation of security cameras that now blanket spaces in every city, largely because they're easy to ignore. And when it comes to our electronic lives, we've tolerated so many intrusions on our privacy because we usually get something in the bargain. Sure, Google is reading my email and sending me targeted ads, but Gmail is free, and it's really good.

As time goes on, it's likely that we're going to have to confront the issue of where we're willing to tolerate drones flying and photographing, because they're only going to get smaller and more photographically capable. Mark my words: within ten years (if they can get FAA approval), some company will begin marketing the ultimate in helicopter parenting, a drone that hovers over your kid wherever he goes, following him via the unit that's strapped to his wrist. And they'll sell like hotcakes.

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