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Congress report warns: drones will track faces from the sky

I am the eye in the sky, looking at you

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With the FAA working on rules to integrate drones into airspace safety by 2015, the US government’s Congressional Research Service has warned of gaps in how American courts might treat the use of drones.

The snappily-headlined report, Drones in Domestic Surveillance Operations: Fourth Amendment Implications and Legislative Responses (PDF here), notes drones now in use can carry thermal imaging, high-powered cameras, license plate readers and LIDAR (light detection and ranging). “Soft” biometrics and facial recognition won’t be far behind, the report suggests, allowing drones to “recognize and track individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender, and skin color.”

“The relative sophistication of drones contrasted with traditional surveillance technology may influence a court’s decision whether domestic drone use is lawful under the Fourth Amendment,” the report compiled by legislative attorney Richard Thompson II states.

The report expresses a view that in most cases, using drones to spy on people in their homes would have to fall within the legal “plain view” doctrine (which means police can only carry out surveillance of someone’s home from a “lawful vantage point”). However, areas nearby the home – say, in a driveway or at a gate – receive a much more ambiguous protection.

The report is also concerned that the falling cost of drones could, in itself, exacerbate privacy concerns, noting that: “access to inexpensive technology may significantly reduce budgetary concerns that once checked the government from widespread surveillance.”

The Congressional research report comes hard on the heels of a Panopticon-style FBI project became public. The Feds’ billion-dollar facial recognition “Next Generation Identification” project, described here in New Scientist.

Concerns about citizens being “droned” into a Panopticon aren’t confined to America. Following stories in the Sydney Morning Herald about the increasing adoption of unlicensed private drones in Australia, the nation's Privacy Commissioner Tim Pilgrim has called for public debate about the technology, since the use of a drone by individuals “in their private” capacity is not covered by Australia’s Privacy Act. ®

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