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Privacy battle against U.S. drone surveillance ramps up

Taylor Armerding | Feb. 4, 2013
Government and private ever more capable drones has prompted fear of 'a wholesale surveillance state,' and lawmakers are responding

Part of the concern is over the capabilities of cameras and other equipment in drones, which can track people, vehicles and even small objects from altitudes greater than 20,000 feet. A recent video posted on YouTube shows Yiannis Antoniades of BAE Systems demonstrating the reach of the 1.8 gigapixel ARGUS-IS video surveillance camera, which can track people and vehicles in a medium-sized city of 15 square miles. Every moving object is tracked and stored.

Amie Stepanovich, associate litigation counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said ARGUS means "a city can be under constant, 24/7 surveillance."

"[ARGUS] will likely operate with numerous, smaller drones that are able to navigate close to buildings and structures and carry sophisticated equipment, like facial recognition, terahertz scanners, and license plate readers," Stepanovich said.

The EFF complaint cited one drone that can crack Wi-Fi networks and intercept text messages and cell phone conversations, "without the knowledge or help of either the communications provider or the customer."

As several comments on the group's website noted, if the government allowed this to become public, it is likely well out of date, and the current capabilities are much greater.

That, according to author and former political consultant Naomi Wolf, is enough to declare that, "the police state [in the U.S.] is now officially here."

Writing in The Guardian, Wolf notes that among the information collected by EFF is that some drones are "as small as hummingbirds -- meaning that you won't necessarily see them, tracking your meeting with your fellow activists, with your accountant or your congressman, or filming your cruising the bars or your assignation with your lover, as its video-gathering whirs."

The drones will not all be from the government either. The FAA, which has already issued permits to Raytheon, General Atomics, Telford Aviation, and Honeywell to test new drones, has been charged by Congress to develop guidelines for both commercial and government drone use by October 2015.

"HSBC, Chase, Halliburton etc. can have their very own fleets of domestic surveillance drones," Wolf wrote. And that, combined with drones used by the military, by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and local law enforcement, adds up to some serious surveillance. "The meshing of military, domestic law enforcement, and commercial interests is absolute. You don't need a messy, distressing declaration of martial law."

Schneier agrees the technology is now in place for "a wholesale surveillance state."

"And, you have to remember that technology never gets worse," Schneier said. "It always gets better. That's what's worrisome."

He said Markey's bill will not solve the problem, because it is already arriving a bit late. "It's very difficult to produce regulations with money involved," he said. "Once there is a drone industry, it makes it harder."


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