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Where the drones are: New map shows drones operating near you

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 16th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Drones are operating, or are licensed to operate, from almost 800 sites in the U.S. according to aggregated statistics. Authorized operators include the United States military, as well as law enforcement agencies, and even colleges and universities. The pervasive use of drones raises powerful privacy concerns that are yet to be addressed.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Americans pride themselves on their freedom and privacy, two values which move in lock step with one another. However, the U.S. may be one of the least private nations on Earth, with virtually every movement we make somehow recorded on security cameras, by our cell phone GPS systems, and yes, by our social networks.

See the map of military drones here.

See the map of non-military drones here.

At any time, law enforcement can aggregate that data and build a case that puts a suspected criminal at the scene of a crime.

Nobody has a problem with putting criminals behind bars, but what happens when previously lawful activity becomes unpopular or even illegal? What happens when illegal activity what was largely ignored, such as minor traffic infractions and jaywalking, becomes an easily enforced stream of revenue? Case and point would be red light cameras, which although they cause more accidents than they prevent, are popular for their earning potential with law enforcement.

What happens when the surveillance cameras enjoy a God's eye view of you and your home, in an age when newly-developed sensors can literally see through walls?

Modern technology is making all this possible and nobody seems too concerned because it is happening in quiet, seemingly innocuous increments. Unfortunately, drone surveillance technology is becoming mainstream and data can be recorded and saved for later review and use. Even data which is unintentionally collected.

And this is the status quo.

Drones, unlike a patrol officer on the street, can fly above homes and peek into backyards where most people enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy. This goes well beyond the occasional passage of a police or news helicopter, which are expensive operators that fly when there's a specific mission to be accomplished. These assets aren't interested in filming you while you swim in your backyard pool.

However, drones are unmanned vehicles which in some cases can fly for hours, high aloft, recording everything they see for later. They are low cost assets, enabling continual operation. They are also quiet, having been developed intentionally for surveillance, so they can operate with you none the wiser.

It seems to be too late to stop the tide of drones, which as stated previously, are already becoming mainstream. There is not a single day or hour when a drone isn't operating above American skies. It is simply now a matter of expanding their use.

In defense of the drones, if one can be made, many of the operators listed here are only authorized to operate small, low-endurance, technologically limited craft. Some are for research purposes, and some are very small and can only fly for minutes at a time.

However, all great things have small beginnings. Eventually, drones will be commonplace; unsurprising eyes in the skies, much like helicopters and general aviation aircraft are today.

For now, we are protected (hopefully) by ethical actors, our inherent freedoms, and the law, which should keep drones from snooping into our backyards, and should prevent any such data from being used against us without a warrant. However, we are but one or two court decisions, or a zealous legislature away from seeing that change.

When that happens, the U.S. will be better ranked with China and Iran in terms of privacy, rather than the free democracies of the West - assuming we're not there already.

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