Monday, July 09, 2012

Fear the Drones

Normally, Rich Lowry of National Review is a keen and reliable observer of the American scene. But like any columnist, Mr. Lowry pens an occasional clunker, like the one last week about the "Great Drone Panic of 2012." Noting that many conservatives--including Charles Krauthamer and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul--want them banned for domestic use (because of privacy concerns), Mr. Lowry describes their opposition as "Luddism masquerading as civil libertarianism." Drones are here to stay, Lowry writes, might as well get used to it:

"...Ultimately, it is not the technology that matters, but the use to which it is put. A can of pepper spray is technologically unsophisticated. Yet it can be an instrument of cruelty if wielded arbitrarily by a cop. The drone is potentially a powerful tool. Vigilance is advisable; panic is silly."

Or is it? The civilian drone market is about to explode, with scores of companies and organizations, public and private, set to send UAVs aloft, mostly in support of surveillance and security functions. So, Rich Lowry is right about one thing: at this point, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop the drone revolution.

But on the other hand, the proliferation of UAVs in domestic airspace will create a number of civil liberties issues, with little regard for how those matters will be resolved.

For starters, there's the question of random versus targeted surveillance. Presumably, police drones will be able to operate like helicopters, flying routine patrols above their jurisdiction. If suspicious or criminal behavior is observed, drone operators should have the same rights as other officers to follow and monitor those individuals.

But what if the individual (or a particular residence) is earmarked for extended surveillance, concentrating largely on a certain suspect, or activities at their home address. In that regard, near-continuous UAV surveillance is similar to a wiretap, which requires probable cause and authorization from a judge. At what point will similar requirements be mandated for police drone surveillance? And what about the neighbors or other Innocent bystanders who may be caught in the surveillance zone? How will their rights be protected?

There's also the matter of how information collected by law enforcement drones will be stored and protected. Towards the end of my intel career, I was given a tour of an Air Force Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS), which receives, analyzes and processes information collected by military UAVs, like the Predator and Reaper systems. Incidentally, this was before the service expanded its "orbits" to more than 30, and added additional DCGS facilities with guard and reserve units.

What many don't realize is the enormous "support" element required for a drone mission. Along with the two-person "operational crew" (pilot and sensor operator), there is an additional team consisting of 12-24 intelligence specialists, assigned to conduct initial analysis on information collected by the UAVs sensors and provide support to troops on the ground.

As you might expect, the amount of information collected by these missions is enormous; at the time of my tour, that single DCGS facility (part of an Air Force intelligence wing) had surveillance data that was already measured in terabytes (emphasis mine), and that was more than five years ago. With the ensuring, dramatic increase in UAV operations, we can only imagine how much information is now retained in vast storage facilities, which can be readily accessed by intelligence analysts throughout the community.

And to its credit, the military has done a remarkably good job safeguarding this information. As a rule, the only drone footage that has "leaked" is released by the Pentagon. Still, there is cause for concern; after all, the U.S. intelligence apparatus thought much of its data was secure until a traitorous Private (Bradley Manning) began downloading reams of classified info from various "secure" networks and transmitted it to WikiLeaks.

On the civilian side, no one has been able to answer the questions of what will be collected by police drones, who will have access to the data and how it will be safeguarded.  True, many law enforcement UAVs will have only a limited collection capability, but larger police organizations (or consortium's) will be able to employ state-of-the-art systems, capable of collecting vast amounts of data.  How will it be stored?  What security measures will be in place to protect the rights of individuals?  

Additionally, what assurances (if any) does the public have that the UAV's "down-link" won't be accessed or  pirated?  In Afghanistan, the signal from Predator drones wasn't encrypted until U.S. troops made a startling discovery.  Taliban fighters had figured out a way to intercept the drone's surveillance feed, and they were watching what we were seeing.  It's doubtful that local law enforcement organizations (or even the feds) will run military-grade encryption for their guidance and surveillance signals, creating the real possibility that others can intercept or spoof them.  Not long ago, a professor at the University of Texas demonstrated how easily it can be accomplished, successfully "pirating" a drone flying over the football stadium.  

These are the types of issues that must be resolved before large numbers of drones start orbiting in American skies.  As is often the case, technology has leap-frogged ahead of legal and privacy concerns, forcing everyone to play catch-up.  Except in this case, there appears to be relatively little concern about the civil liberties aspect.  Indeed, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (who has been mentioned as a possible running mate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney) recently heralded drone technology as a great leap forward for law enforcement.  

Governor McDonnell is certainly right about that, but more attention must be paid to who will be operating these drones, how they will collect information (or more correctly, how they will be allowed to gather data) and procedures for not only safe-guarding the collection haul, but the rights of ordinary Americans who may find themselves under the gaze of a police UAV.     

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