The Future of Privacy, or is the Genie Out of the Bottle for All Time?

Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), guest blogger

FAA logoThis story started out in one place and ended somewhere else.  I had been thinking about privacy issues for some time. A friend of mine, a forensic psychologist, like so many professionals, has gone to a (mostly) paperless office. Instead of taking a thick bulky file to court when called on to testify, he takes one dedicated laptop. As all our attorneys and anyone else who has had to testify as an expert knows, if you take your files to court, opposing attorneys are allowed to examine anything brought to the witness stand, such as the contents of a briefcase.  My friend was concerned that he did not want anyone to rummage through his private files and other client files if he brought his regular laptop. So he bought an inexpensive laptop. When he goes to court, he simply downloads the files for that one case, as well as any emails associated with the case. That way he has everything at his fingertips, and counsel opposite can look at everything in that little laptop without compromising privacy or violating HIPAA rules.

A few days ago, he and I were discussing smart phones.  Because of a recent article in the news, the question came up of who owns your cell phone if you use it for business purposes.  Almost everyone I know uses their personal cell phone in relation to their employment. Texting, emails and file storage of all kinds. Suppose the employer is sued, and either the plaintiff or the defense attorney demands all cell phones used in the business be rounded up for evidence in discovery? What does one do in a case where your employer tells you to turn in your personal cell phone, and you may not delete anything, lest you be accused of spoliation of evidence.? Your employer and all the parties are now privy to your personal emails, photos and possibly even all your passwords. Furthermore, you may or may not get your $300+ smart phone back, and if you do, it may take weeks or months.  You may find your memory card gone or erased if you ever do get it back.

That led me to thinking about the broader issue of privacy and new technology, especially regarding drones. Drones have been a hot item in the news recently. There has been as much misinformation as information, and I wanted to set some of the record straight. This story is probably going to scare some people. I must admit, I am a bit nervous about this new technology and the future of privacy myself the more I learn about research projects in the works.

Recently, a number of YouTube videos of radio controlled model airplanes using First Person View (FPV) have been posted.  The model in the video below is made of foam, and the miniature camera system is available at most electronic stores and hobby shops. The communication is two-way. The pilot on the ground “sees” what a live pilot would see if he were in the airplane himself. This is done using special goggles which projects the camera images for a virtual reality experience.  It even has a ‘heads up’ instrument panel that can be superimposed on the screen. The little dial at the center bottom is a direction finder, with the arrow pointing toward the pilot and his transmitter. That way, if he loses track of the model, he or she can head it back home. This video was made in Europe. The pilot in the video violates all kinds of rules for both safety and common sense. It does look like fun and probably is, but there are a lot of fun things that are illegal, unsafe or both.

Radio control model airplanes for hobbyists began to take root in the 1960s and 1970s.  Radio equipment became lighter and cheaper and the hobby grew by leaps and bounds. Model airplane clubs formed all over the world.  There are serious competitions in scale models, aerobatics, simulated combat, pylon racing, and gliders. Most RC flying is simply for fun sport and companionship at the flying field.

AMA Logo
Used with permission.

The sanctioning body for model airplane pilots and clubs is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).  In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of AMA, member #954460. I am also a dues paying member of a radio control model airplane club, which is officially recognized by the AMA. That means members are bound, both ethically and by insurance rules, to follow AMA guidelines for operation of model aircraft.

The rules for FPV models are similar for regular radio controlled model airplanes. No flying more than 400’ above ground level (AGL) or a thousand feet laterally from the pilot on the ground. The airplanes are subject to a weight limit, unless a special waiver is given.  Use of model airplanes cannot be used for commercial gain. Which brings up another interesting issue. If a video goes viral, YouTube pays the poster a nominal royalty for being able to insert those annoying popup ads at the bottom. Does that make it commercial gain? The rule makers are still studying that one.

A few years ago, an outlaw group calling itself Team BlackSheep began going around the world making YouTube videos of their exploits with FPV under the username nastycop420. They have a commercial interest, since they sell FPV equipment through their online store. I will not link to that commercial enterprise because I have no interest in driving business their way.  Authorities believe it was the Team BlackSheep group which caused such a stir recently when one of their FPV craft was seen by an airline crew in or near the traffic pattern of a major airport in New York City. The video below has stirred much concern by the AMA, FAA, Homeland Security and airline groups.

I notice that comments critical of the stunt are downrated until they are hidden, such as this one from user dunkonu23:

This comment has received too many negative votes

This is one of the most idiotic and irresponsible use of airspace I have ever seen. In publishing such acts, you are encouraging people who are even less responsible to make even less responsible flights. You violated nearly every AMA rule in existence for FPV vehicles. There was only one good thing about this video–the pilot had the common sense to not buzz the UN. It is only a matter of time before a major accident happens and that will mean no more model aircraft for anyone.

To which nastycop420 replied,

“really? it violated AMA rules? I hope I don’t go to AMA prison … :)”

The FAA says they are studying the incident, but when one reads the FAA guidelines, they are limited.  Advisory Circular AC 91-57 was issued back in 1981.  In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which includes SEC. 336. SPECIAL RULE FOR MODEL AIRCRAFT.   The AMA has a detailed safety code, but those rules do not have the weight of law and can only be enforced against members. Violation of the rules can get one kicked out of the AMA and member clubs, but that is about it. No one will go to jail, and no one will pay a fine.

The official AMA guidelines for FPV can be found in AMA Bulletin #550. The “buddy box” referred to is a separate controller hooked to the primary control system by cable, so the ‘buddy’ can function as a safety pilot and take over if for any reason the primary pilot becomes disoriented or loses control of the aircraft. The ‘buddy’ typically would not be using the FPV virtual reality goggles and will operate the model by line of sight, same as any other radio control model.

To be clear, most FPV aircraft are operated by responsible hobbyists who abide by the rules. There are hundreds of benign and even benevolent uses for FPV in news reporting, law enforcement and firefighting.  In Ontario, after a great deal of paperwork and money, a police department got their new UAV, which was similar in size to the one shown in the video above. The first time it was deployed, they used it to find a lost child in a remote area.  The officer in charge said the situation was such they would never have found the child had it not been for the “eye in the sky.” When the Mississippi river flooded, an enterprising reporter used a model airplane with FPV to get aerial views of the flooded areas and workers repairing the levee without having to rent a helicopter.

The video below was recently posted on the AMA web site.  It is rather long, at 27 minutes, but covers all aspects of the issue of privacy versus rights of ordinary hobbyists who try to abide by the rules. The conservative commentator, Dr. Charles Krauthammer has some observations that are on point, but I think Dr. Krauthammer goes too far when he says just “outlaw them” and then work backward.  My own experience with the FAA and bureaucracies in general is, if they get the power to obstruct something, it is quite hard for them to let go of any of it.  I read one proposal before the FAA recommending that anyone flying FPV model aircraft must have an FAA third class medical certificate and have special certified training. The same proposed rule would apply to the safety pilot on the buddy box as well. That is illogical on the face of it, because one can fly under Light Sport Pilot (LSA) rules with only a valid driver’s license. Gliders (sailplanes) can be flown without even a driver’s license.  In fact, a kid can solo a glider at age 14 and get a private pilot glider rating at age 16. The private pilot license allows the young pilot to take up passengers a year or two before being able to get a driver’s license. However, somebody thinks model airplane pilots must to be medically and physically qualified to fly real full sized airplanes or helicopters?

How about scofflaws like Team BlackSheep who flaunt the rules deliberately and openly?  I have run into several people who have seen the videos, and tell me they are going to order one of those systems so they can get in on the fun too. They don’t even know the AMA exists, or that such behavior could result in overreaction by Congress and various Federal agencies. They not only don’t know; what’s more, they don’t care.

Moore’s Law is very much in effect. Moore’s Law posits the power of computing chips doubles every 18 months, and no end is in sight.  The genie is out of the bottle for good. Given the glacial speed of lawmakers, any remedies proposed will be antiquated by the time laws are passed. Additionally, there are always those who ignore the law. This is a problem for honest model hobbyists and the AMA. It is an even bigger problem for anyone who values privacy. As Dr. Krauthammer says in the video, he is concerned about Google Street View. An acquaintance reported he found a picture on Google Earth of him and his wife unloading baskets of laundry from their car in the driveway of his house. There are serious constitutional issues at play here, including the First Amendment, and the right to be left alone. There are those who have fantasies of drone strikes with Hellfire missiles on US soil. That won’t happen unless we are invaded or if there is an all-out civil war. The real truth is what is happening to privacy. Several recent articles on this blog have covered warrantless searches and the despicable Patriot Act, so no need to rehash them.

I suggest that before commenting on this story; watch all 27 minutes of the video below. To say it is food for thought is an understatement.

What do you think?

25 thoughts on “The Future of Privacy, or is the Genie Out of the Bottle for All Time?”

  1. To Otteray Scribe

    Many thanks for this; as always a carefully considered piece. With regard to RFID theft, for the last 18 months I have been carrying my credit cards in a ‘shielded’ wallet – and the same goes for my passport!

    The drone issue is disturbing for several reasons. Man has not yet made a fool-proof, 100% reliable flying machine (that even goes for the simplest and oldest, the hot-air balloon). Given the FAA’s need to protect low-level traffic, where do we go from here?

    What constitutes ‘unreasonable search’ in the drone age?

    I live in Greater Boston, which has already seen a successful prosecution for the intended use of model aircraft as explosive-laden drones like the ‘Switchblade’ in the film. You can imagine that after the Boston Marathon bombings, the general population is very very nervous regarding anything which might be transformed into an attack weapon.

    These are challenging times – and I cannot see this particular genie being forced back into the bottle easily.

  2. Tight question OS.

    There is no privacy if “they” want to know what is happening just about anywhere at just about any time.

    The video shows 1/1000 of it or less.

    [Gang wars, mafia hits, terrorism, drug smuggling, casing a joint for robbery, local drone wars, etc. etc. etc.]

  3. i see an opening in the market for an anti-uav, uav.

    or a banner for birds saying “don’t shoot, i’m a real bird”

  4. OS, I really don’t get the appeal of Angry Birds. Words with Friends, on the other hand, is a lot of fun, especially playing with kiddo and sending short messages with each play. But not while working and never on a work-place device.

  5. Joy,
    If my cell phone was ever subpoenaed, they would be S.O.L. because I use a flip phone with no features. I make and receive phone calls, a lot of them. However, I do not have voice mail set up. If it is important they will call back. I don’t use text messaging because if somebody wants to write me a note, they can send an email. Since I got it, the only pictures I have taken were two of an antique Indian motorcycle a fellow had for sale.

    Besides, everyone at our office who has a smart phone spends way too much time fiddling with it instead of working. Playing Angry Birds is not getting any work done.

  6. Thank you, OS. Another very interesting post!

    The most security conscious people I know use two phones so they can keep work completely separate from personal.

    But I think privacy as we understand it is going to disappear. Work is underway on figuring out how to see dreams – Not much of a step beyond that to being able to know what you are thinking, as well as hear what you hear and see what you see.

  7. James Knauer,
    I don’t trust “strong encryption.” The government demands the “back door key” to any encryption software sold or even given away. If you develop an “unbreakable” encryption software, expect a knock on your door and some unsmiling folks in dark suits will explain the facts of life to you.

    As a friend of mine likes to say, “The best medicine is tincture of sunshine.”

  8. The year is 2013. Strong encryption has been with us for decades, yet no email programs or any communications software used by the masses make it even close to easy. In fact, it does exist as far as these vital services are concerned.

    You can bet the communications between drone and drone pilot are encrypted.

    But neither govts or those addicted to (alleged) “intellectual” property have any interest whatsoever in strong encryption, as this would eat into the warrantless data-mining bidness, which continues through this minute.

    This article demonstrates even more need of strong encryption, as the lines of our lives continue to blur. “None of your business” and “prove it” and “innocent until you do” are the messages sent by strong encryption, and many busy-bodies have trouble hearing those words.

    Strong encryption over the growing cloud of always-on devices, mediated by smartphones and not ISPs, is coming. Articles such as this only hasten its arrival.

  9. Mike,
    Rule #1: Don’t shoot up into the air.
    Rule #2: See Rule #1.

    As I see it, this is a technology available to everyone. One guy brought his FPV rig out to the airport the other day to show it off. He was still putting it together, but it is impressive. His airplane is the same one as the plane in the first video, and he has a Go-Pro camera to stick in the plane.

    As I was writing this, I thought about all those stories on this blog about people being arrested for taking pictures. For instance, the woman on her front porch arrested for taking photos of police misconduct. Remember the scene from the helicopter flick, “Blue Thunder,” where Roy Scheider hovers in quiet mode and gets the secret conference in a high rise office? If we lack privacy due to these technologies, then so does everyone.

    Reminds me of a song. Jim Ed Brown was a high school classmate of mine. I always liked this song he wrote: “Looking Back to See,” which sums up the whole thing as a cute country love song.

  10. Drones are the curse of the future, right here right now. Do they have benign uses of course but lets face it they are being weaponized as we speak. Do you trust the powers that be to keep them under control. We have heard stories about abusive police officers. What do you think they will do with drones?

    They are not over there. They are over here right now. I hate to agree with Krauthammer but I must in this instance. The hazards are too great and our ability to manage them is almost nil.

  11. Chuck,

    You make several very thought provoking points, which would be alone worth copious comments, but it all boils down to one thing. Technology advance is a wonderful thing that can make all of our lives richer. However, given the current set up we live under this technology can also serve very bad purposes usually intermingled with the acquisition of money, power or both. Privacy I’m afraid is gone. As I watched your videos I had a vision in my minds eye. I know you live in the rural Tennessee mountains and that you are accomplished with weaponry. Though I don’t know exactly where you live, I imagine your place on the side of a mountain lush with greenery and affording you privacy. My image was of you blowing one of these private, prying drones out of the sky. It felt good to imagine it. 🙂

  12. OS,
    I hope you are right too. However, we have seen what drones can do so I would be surprised if local police don’t jump on the bandwagon soon. Some already have.

  13. OS,

    Interesting article. Have you (or anyone) heard of GIS (geographical information systems)? It can provide more info about you than flying airplanes with cameras (all you need to know is the name or address of the individual).

  14. Raff,
    I am hoping lawmakers don’t react with panic and breathless pearl clutching. We have seen that in way too many instances, the Patriot Act being one of the more visible examples of how to trample on the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments with more or less impunity.

    On the other hand, as the last video shows, there are plenty of beneficial uses for this technology, such as going where humans can’t go. Chernobyl and Fukushima come to mind, not to mention the examples of the reporter in Natchez and finding lost kids.

    And it is still a great hobby. Hopefully the AMA and hobbyists will keep lawmakers from going over the top.

  15. Great job OS! It is kind of scary to see what those “model” planes can do and see.

  16. AY,
    I have been aware of ID theft via RFID technology for some time. There are also thieves who set up shop in large parking lots, where they can pick up the signal when people lock and unlock their cars with remote controls. Come back from mall shopping only to find your car unlocked and ransacked for anything of value.

  17. Of course there is no such thing as a Smart Phone. There are dumb schmucks who think they have phones that are smart but they are deceived.

  18. When I first read the title of the topic I thought it said Piracy not privacy. But then you got into the drone thing. Every sailboat needs a privacy drone to combat pirates. If one is off the coast of Yemen or New Jersey and the pirates come out to board ship, you launch the drone and bomb their boat. Viola, all quiet on the Jersey shore. Thanks for bringing up the topic. Those who steal our items from our computers are pirates. If they have a subpoena then they are Italian pirates. The world is divided between outright pirate territories, intermediate pirate territories and civilized nation states which observe the laws of human rights and laws. Now, the pirates are intruding into our civilized nation states. The lesson is dont take the laptop to court, dont use the company cell phone to talk to the hookers, and keep your tax returns off of any computer. When you fly over New Jersey make sure you flush.

  19. You think you have privacy…… Not even in the mountains…. OS, something to add to your article should be wifi tracking with credit/debit cards and government issued ID’s……

    I read an article about hotels that have charging privileges with room keys….these should not be turned back in as it has your credit card information stored on the card…..though access to the room has expired….the information still exists on the room key…..

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