July 11, 2014 jmoro

Privacy and Surveillance & The Politics of the Skies, Pt. 1: 8 July, 2014

Attentive readers will remember that these two topics, “Privacy and Surveillance,” and “The Politics of Aviation” were originally scheduled to be two separate meetings. However, as we progressed in our discussion, we realized that the two topics are inextricably bound together, and as we thought through how to answer our questions responsible, we decided that it was impractical—or even irresponsible—to delineate between the two. So: the next two posts will be dedicated to both topics in equal measure. They’ll also be a bit more bullet-point-y!

This Month in Drones

We began this meeting with a news update on drones (we’re calling it This Month in Drones) from PI Jon Caris. Important news included:

Meeting Notes

  • What makes drones terrifying, annoying, or both? Setting aside the surveillance question, Marisa Parham suggested that there are a set of aesthetic arguments against drones—they’re too loud, they’re disruptive, they’re ugly to look at—that might eventually diminish as the technology evolves. Jon Caris pointed out a study that suggests that when drones are dressed up to look like fairies, people find them less intimidating. The group was intrigued, but observed that diminishing these aesthetic concerns do little to assuage the visceral repulsion one might have towards being surveilled.
  • How, then, to regulate drones? Eric Poehler observed that licensing initially seems appealing, but the group agreed that in the long run, it essentially would pit one set of individual rights against another.
  • One of the goals the group identified: producing a useful narrative for the public on how to define personal and private space when dealing with drones, and how to be mindful, as an operator, of those boundaries.
  • On the question of surveillance, Marisa Parham pointed out that, when considering the horrifying effect surveillance has on populations, that the ability to observe or the condition of being observed is not technologically determined—for instance, Parham spoke of growing up in poor, predominantly black communities with the knowledge that everyone was able to see, hear, and know each other’s business, and the horror that produces. In that regard, we need to perhaps have a broad view of what constitutes “technology,” while being aware of how drones operate as a focal point for broader issues (always sociopolitically determined and demarcated) around what populations are subject to surveillance, and what populations have the capacity to more easily surveil.
  • In this way, drones have the capacity to instrumentalize angst: their emotional impact can exist even without their formal instantiation.
  • Is democratizing a technology inherently a good thing? Do we have a responsibility to make drones available to the widest possible audience? An unresolved question.
  • Mariel Nyröp observed that drones operate far differently in urban and rural spaces, and that we need to be aware of how questions of property rights and visibility play out differently in both. The archetypal idea of a farmer using drones to monitor crops bears little resemblance to how drones could get operated in dense cities. Moreover, people in cities are less likely to own their own property, or to have their property stacked on top of other properties. How do we think through the legal questions of airspace when multiple properties share the same verticality?
  • The group proposed making safety and privacy cards to share with AIRLab participants, to make it easy to see basic do’s and don’ts of drone operation.
  • The meeting closed with a short presentation from Paul Voss, who discussed some of the dominant economic and political forces working in the drone industry right now, and current timelines for FAA rulings related to commercial drone operation.