The Ethical Resolve Blog

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How is the Drone Industry Handling Privacy?

When it comes to privacy, the drone industry is not clear for takeoff.

Despite being a relatively small event, the Drones, Data X Conference in Santa Cruz last month painted a large canvas of the current state of affairs in the world of UAV technology. The audience heard from industry leaders in business and government, as well as being able to interact with a large number of drone enthusiasts and hobbyists. These two groups have completely different views of the world of drone flight.

From the perspective of hobbyists like Ryan Jay, the world of the drone hobbyist is a bit like the wild west: there are FAA regulations “that have no teeth” to control his activities in drone flight. He is a one man flight team, able to build, launch and pilot his own UAVs using First Person View (FPV) by means of a camera mounted on his vehicle. Ryan has built (and lost) several vehicles over the past few years as a hobbyist, and he doesn’t see his ability to pursue this hobby being meaningfully limited by the long conversations going on the in the drone industry between NASA, the FAA and drone hardware and software makers.

The view from above 1,200 feet is different. In an industry with investment already in the billions there is no shortage of careful thinking going into answering questions about how drones should be regulated to protect privacy and security. Whereas the private drone hobbyist can do everything herself, using drones for commercial purposes is highly visible and highly regulated. The billions invested in the drone industry have not been spent to fulfill the desires of hobbyists: there is massive ROI projected for companies who are able to leverage drones for purposes that are currently done inefficiently by other means.

Whether we are talking about aerial inspection of powerlines, flare stacks, wind farms, oil pipelines, and solar arrays, surveying of forests, mines, quarries and agricultural resources, use of drones for disasters relief, search and rescue, and delivery of medical supplies to remote areas, drones are implicated as the tool that makes the impossible possible. There is a recurring narrative in this drone community about the power of aerial vision: the phrase “god’s eye view” of the world was repeated so many times over the course of the day it began to make me uncomfortable. Romeo Durscher, Director of Education for DJI (the largest drone maker in the world) used the phrase more than once in his talk saying at one point “The God’s eye view is really my favorite view.”

Ethical concerns on the ground, and in the sky.

With this kind of power there are serious ethical concerns at play, the most obvious being safety and privacy. The safety concern is at the forefront of the FAA’s involvement here. It is literally the FAA’s mandate to make sure that people are safe from aerial craft of any kind. To this end they have implemented careful regulations for drones, and these are particularly important for the commercial drone industry.

Where these safety issues are concerned, the industry seems to have their arms around the problem. Companies like Airware are working closely with the NASA and other agencies to develop a comprehensive UAS Traffic Management System. The plan laid out by Parimal Kopardekar, Manager of the Safe Autonomous System Operations Project at NASA, for the safe roll out of drone systems in urban areas by 2018 is comprehensive and fairly robust. The plan contains a phased roll out of drones so that they are not flown above populated areas until significant tests of their safety measures has been carried out. Even if a drone falls out of the sky and kills someone, this industry will have a strong message of safety to share with the public. Its likely a hobbyist will kill someone before a commercial drone does, and when that happens, the wild west will be tamed and the commercial drone industry will take over in earnest.

Privacy Problems

The glaring hole in the industry’s ethical approach is their work in the area of privacy. There is no comprehensive policy on how technology should be limited to protect privacy of citizens. Every company in the industry, from hardware manufacturers to software companies to imaging and data analysis organizations think that questions of privacy lie clearly in someone else’s court. When privacy is breached en masse by drones you will find a drone industry pointing fingers and trying to hide rather than presenting a united message.

Jay Bregman, CEO of Verifly, spent his talk bringing attention to the issue of trust between the public and the drone industry. In his talk, Bregman drew an analogy between the beginning of internet and the current state of the drone industry. Without measures put in place to generate trust between the drone market and the public, the drone market will come under massive media attack. Talking about safety and privacy Bregman said, “If we do not attack these issues internally, they will be attacked for us or there will be nothing left to attack.” Bregman’s company Verifly wants to become the industry standard for checking the safety of drones, and indeed there is a clear market for 3rd party organizations to examine the safety protocols of drone hardware and software platforms. Again, however, there was no comprehensive policy regarding privacy.

Values in Design

In his congressional testimony Jesse Kallman, Director of Business Development and Regulatory Affairs at Airware, spoke convincingly on the safety measures needed to protect the public during the development of commercial drones. Where his testimony fell short was in the area of privacy. When pressed on the issue of “Privacy by Design” by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky) Kallman responded “privacy is really independent of the type of technology that’s collecting information.” This response captures the view that many engineers and technology developers hold: ethics is the duty of the technology operator, not the company who builds the hardware or software.

This view is inadequate for an industry that has everything to lose by a lack of public trust in the product that they are offering. It also sidesteps the ethical commitments at the heart of “privacy by design.” The “values in design” movement was launched specifically to help inventors, designers and scientists take responsibility for the ethics embedded in the things they build. Values like privacy are only “independent of technology” if technologists choose to keep them independent.

The SUAV industry needs to think carefully about how hardware, software and imaging are part of a contiguous whole, and privacy should be a concern at every level of drone operation. Presently the industry is kicking the can on these questions. When the media and regulators realize how thin the thinking is in these areas, they’re sure to go straight for the propellers while we watch as a nascent industry crashes on take-off.

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