NEWS: Drone flies at lunch talk on changing nature of privacy

Staff Writer

Local attorney and privacy advocate Grayson Barber spoke about the increasing availability of drones to the government and general public as well as consequent changes in the nature of privacy at a luncheon held by the Center for Information Technology Policy on Thursday afternoon. She followed the talk by piloting an Internet-purchased drone from her cell phone.

“Drones are flying computers,” Barber said, describing their many capabilities. If airports can now perform full body scans, then that technology could one day be placed on flying drones, she said. She explained that drones could also be used to spray tear gas over a rioting crowd, to intercept cell phone calls or to take photos from the air. According to Barber, the need to understand and regulate these capabilities is becoming increasingly important.

Otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles — or UAVs — drones are either controlled remotely by a human pilot or autonomously through a pre-programed assignment. They have a wide variety of uses, ranging from conducting military attacks to obtaining video footage.

Because no humans are aboard drones, supporters say that drones reduce the safety risks inherent in human aviation. However, Barber said that she hypothesizes that as drones become universally available, their use will need to be regulated.

“They’re going to get smaller, cheaper and more ubiquitous,” she said.

Barber, a politics lecturer at the University from 2003 to 2009, serves as an attorney and privacy advocate. She is currently on the advisory board of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a non-profit research group which submitted a petition to the Federal Aviation Administration to recognize drones as a potential threat to “privacy and civil liberties” in 2012.

According to Barber, the FAA currently only regulates drones heavier than 55 pounds, but new technologies allow drones to vary dramatically in size based on their use. In response to EPIC’s petition, the FAA has agreed to provide privacy guidelines for drones of all sizes in August 2014, she said.

In creating guidelines for drone use, the FAA would need to consider the legal precedents in constitutional, common and criminal law, Barber said. Potential guidelines for drone use should address the government’s capacity to use drones, the public’s access to drones and the legal penalties for infractions of these guidelines.

She focused on the effect the increasing prevalence of drones could have on people’s expectations of privacy in public areas. Barber asked her audience how the government will accommodate a future where drones may occupy the airspace above public areas and explained that if drones can track a person’s whereabouts using face recognition technology, for example, they may interfere with one’s lifestyle or freedom of expression.

In addition, Barber addressed the possibility that some people could buy and use drones for stalking, harassment and unintentional trespassing. In the 1946 United States v. Causby case, the Supreme Court ruled that a person only owns as much airspace above his home as he can reasonably use. Thus, current legislation allows drones to be flown over residential houses, she said.

Barber said she believes drones will become ubiquitous and that those who dismiss drones as an inevitable part of life that one cannot regulate are taking “a highly irresponsible attitude.”

“Drones are a neutral device,” Barber said. “They can be used for good or for evil.”

Following the talk, Barber flew a $300 Parrot drone that she purchased from Using Bluetooth, she piloted the drone from her iPhone. Made from plastic with an approximate wingspan of 2.5 feet, the device hovered smoothly using four separate helicopter-like blades.

Barber’s drone, though not weaponized, had built-in cameras that are currently unregulated by the FAA. The cameras, which continuously refocus based on the drone’s distance from subjects, captured high-quality videos that Barber played from her computer.

The flight of Barber’s drone was streamed live on the CITP YouTube channel where videos of other CITP talks and events can be found.


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