Are Surveillance Drones the Future of CCTV?

By Joseph Cox


Quadcopter drone. (Image via)

Last week, the FBI admitted to using drones over US soil. During a Senate meeting, Robert Mueller – the head of the FBI – was asked whether unmanned aircraft were being used in America. He replied, bluntly, "Yes, for surveillance." So that's that. He did, however, quickly put everyone in the country at absolute ease by insisting that they are used in a “very, very minimal way, very seldom”. 

But after the NSA revelations (they claimed their internet surveillance was narrow, targeted and specific, which obviously turned out to be complete bullshit), apologies if Mueller’s words don’t provide much comfort. Until proven otherwise, it's safe to assume that "very, very minimal" translates to almost the exact opposite – that, in reality, CCTV is increasingly taking to the skies, making sure that America remains free from two miles above the ground.          

Encouragingly, Mueller isn’t even sure what happens to the images collected by these drones, or whether there's communication between the various departments that use them: “I’m not certain, I don’t think so.”

Drones have already been in use on the US/Mexican border for over a year now by other wings of the American government. However, rather than achieve their goal of making the US less susceptible to illegal immigration, the usage has instead shone an uncomfortable light on the ineffectiveness of the American government's control of the border. It also raises the question of what else the drones are recording during their fly-by surveillance. 

Drone technology has developed at an incredible rate over the past few years. Starting as clunky, noisy jet planes, the research of micro aerial vehicles (MAVs) is already well underway, with proposed applications for reconnaissance, as well as slightly friendlier, less invasive stuff, such as research and environmental monitoring missions.


FBI director Robert Mueller. (Image via)

However, for all their advancements and genuinely useful, non-nosy uses, the issue of drones mostly being hugely invasive CCTV systems with the power of flight is a pressing one. And the main issue within all that is that these drones are being used without any legislation in place that balances security concerns with invasions of privacy. When asked what laws have been implemented to protect the civil liberties of American citizens from drones, Mueller replied that the FBI is in the “initial stages” of drafting legislation.

Worryingly, an MI5 source talking about the laws governing internet surveillance said that, “The legislation doesn’t exist for this. They are using old legislation and adapting it.” In the same vein, if new laws aren’t written up regulating the use of drones – and, instead, old ones for CCTV are just slightly adapted – then it seems inevitable that a similar abuse of power will be exercised to that of the NSA's mass collection of online data. 

And it’s not just government drones that need to be regulated; there is now a booming commercial market for unmanned aircraft, most of which is coming from China.

I spoke to Sam Smith from Privacy International about what laws need to be in place to protect the public from drones, and what he anticipates for the future of drone surveillance.


Sam Smith, Privacy International. (Photo courtesy of Sam Smith)

VICE: Should the FBI be using domestic drones before laws protecting privacy have been put in place? 
Sam Smith: We would hope not. Existing laws on the books – in regard to closed-circuit TV in the US – are relatively weak in terms of privacy protections. Domestic drones would likely fall into this category, except that – unlike CCTV – flying cameras that can track an individual, vehicle or group using automatic or manual means can be much more invasive. 

What kind of regulations on domestic drones do you think need to be in place? And would they be the same for military and commercial drones?
All monitoring of drones should take account of intent and form. There's a fundamental difference between a predator drone carrying missiles, fire-fighters flying a camera into a burning building and a quadro-copter given to a 12-year-old for Christmas. Drones able to kill should be controlled as weapons. Drones designed as a Christmas present for children can't work in that way.

Beyond cameras and missiles, drones are currently marketed as containing IMSI catchers to intercept mobile phone calls and data. They can be a wi-fi base station, they can contain infra-red cameras, highly directional microphone arrays to single out noises and conversations or a blade to cut through materials. All this being said, there must be regulations on drones, and they have to be tailored to their intent and form. One-size-fits-all drone laws will not account for all their potential uses, each of which carry different risks.

Does the use of drones in a domestic context have any bearing on civilians' privacy?
Absolutely. The scope for remotely operated surveillance devices capable of tracking an individual, via sight or electronic means (following the phone in your pocket), is significant. Depending on how they are deployed, we're not just talking about a drone that goes in to scout a crime. It's entirely possible that drones will become the new CCTV, except the surveillance will not be fixed to the wall, but be able to follow you around. How can you have a reasonable expectation of privacy if this is the case?

What do you think of Mueller's words, "[drones are used] in a very, very minimal way; very seldom"?
Taking those words at face value, there seem to be two words missing from the end: "for now". Without proper oversight and effective monitoring, all technology is abused. As yet, drones have not received widespread use. It's only going to go in one direction from here. 

Mueller says that drones are being used "for surveillance". What do you think this means?
As I said, surveillance could mean many different things. One thing, however, is for certain: we would hope it involves a court order. But if the FBI isn't willing to say, that doesn't inspire confidence.

What do you see for the future of domestic drone use?
Where law enforcement sees a benefit to a tool, they will generally find the money to use it. Drones are cheap compared to the technologies they replace. The lack of regulation of surveillance drones means that, at best, they will be ineffective and, at worst, they will be able to watch the population with little oversight for whatever purposes the government sees fit for the moment.

Thanks, Sam.

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox

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