Drone U Podcast: How to Protect Civil Liberties in a High-Tech World

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 24 2013 5:03 PM

Drone U Podcast: How to Protect Civil Liberties in a High-Tech World

Every Wednesday on Future Tense, we will highlight a talk from a leading thinker from Drone U speaking on the topic of what our drone future may look like. Drone U is produced in cooperation with the New America Foundation. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.)

This week, Drone U features Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. In this episode, Stepanovich discusses the privacy implications of domestic drone use, and suggests legal measures to ensure that individual rights are not eroded as drones are integrated into domestic airspace.

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Stepanovich perfectly articulates a tension I frequently hear in conversations about our drone future. On one hand, there is a sense of amazement at what drone technology will provide us: monitoring of environmental abuse, enhanced search and rescue functions, new tools for investigative journalism, speedy taco delivery. But at the same time, many—including myself—have serious qualms that drones can all too easily be co-opted for unsavory purposes. Part of this anxiety is that, just as with any technology, it’s impossible to predict exactly what novel uses the future will conjure up. There are already a few unforeseen uses, as Stepanovich explains, including potential drone-enabled peeping toms and what sounds like a drone lending library maintained by Customs and Border Protection.

What we do know is that drones are excellent platforms for existing surveillance technologies. Stepanovich names facial recognition tools, thermal imaging cameras, automated license plate readers, and stingray receptors (devices used to locate and communications from cellphones and other wireless devices) as just a few examples. This is a sobering reminder that much of our existing privacy protection has been wrapped up in technological limitations, not enshrined in legal protection. Those technological limitations are evaporating—and drones are playing a part.

How do we prevent a future where around-the-clock visual surveillance is commonplace, but protect a future full of useful, airborne innovation? Stepanovich focuses on the former by contributing thoughtful recommendations on the best ways to provide the proper level of civil liberties protection. In doing so, she kicks off a conversation on privacy and innovation that I am certain we will continue to have over at Drone U.

Join us on July 31 for the next episode from Drone U, featuring Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Nabiha Syed is a media lawyer in New York and a visiting fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project.  She is the co-founder of DroneU.