Mini-Drones Help Eric Schmidt Find Religion on Privacy

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Eric Schmidt has apparently found religion on privacy, and he's here with a message: mini-drones need to be regulated. We can't have folks and terrorists and such using these things to spy on each other, he said, that's for governments and Google to do.

OK, I added the bit about Google, but that's what kept circulating in my mind when I was reading about this at the BBC. Actually, I was thinking that Mr. Schmidt has brass balls the size of Kansas.

Eric Schmidt

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt

I mean, I agree with him on this issue. Advances in remote drone technology are and will continue to proliferate to consumers, and the idea of Anyone and Everyone™ being able to easily, quickly, and cheaply toss a mini-drone into the sky so they can spy on Anyone and Everyone™ is horrific.

As Mr. Schmidt himself put it, "How would you feel if your neighbor went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their backyard. It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?"

I'd feel pretty rotten about it, kind of like how I feel about Google and Facebook tracking anything and everything they can about us and then selling it to the highest bidder. Kind of like how I felt about Google sheening around with cars that took pictures of everything and listened in on our WiFi networks at the same time.

Kind of like how I feel about a future where people walk around with Google Glass devices watching everything so it can added to our profiles. Kind of like how I feel about—thanks to Google's excellent facial recognition—being a part of it even when I'm not actively using Google's services.

Don't forget, Eric Schmidt is the man who famously said, “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Brass balls. Did I say the size of Kansas? Make that Canada.

"I'm not going to pass judgment on whether armies should exist, but I would prefer to not spread and democratize the ability to fight war to every single human being," he said, and I honestly applaud him for saying it.

But then he added this: "It's got to be regulated... It's one thing for governments, who have some legitimacy in what they're doing, but have other people doing it... it's not going to happen."

What he really means is that the ability to snoop and pry and watch—always watch—needs to be kept in the hands of governments and corporations who are wealthy, who can be trusted with (and profit from) the information.

After all, democratizing the ability to surveil might devalue some of that information, and we can't have that.

No, I am pleased that Mr. Schmidt made these comments, and I am glad someone with power and clout—someone as smart as Google Chairman Eric Schmidt—is willing and able to talk about this.

But, and this is a big ol' but worthy of adulation and adoration from Sir Mix-A-Lot, I can't help but be doubtful of his motives.

It's like Mr. Schmidt warning us that Facebook and Apple's ecosystems are threats to an open Internet. It's true—never mind that some of us like the idea of Google not being able to slurp everything we do—but Google wants things to be "open" so that the company can profit from that openness.

I'm also disregarding the reality that Facebook is an equal offender, and that Google was really just pissed that the social networking giant and Apple both have the ability to slurp what it can't.

I'm also reminded of when Mr. Schmidt argued that patents that set the technology bar should be available to everyone. That's a mighty convenient position for Google to take, considering that its Android OEMs who have been on the losing end of patent litigation around the world.

So yeah, mini-drones could certainly become a privacy nightmare, but so is Google's collection of portfolio on me, and that's not a "someday" thing, that's here today.

Original photo courtesy of Wikimedia, snarked up with help from Shutterstock.

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Comments

geoduck

I agree about the irony of someone from Google crowing about privacy. However I also find his worry about “drones” to be a bit silly. RC airplanes have been available for nearly half a century. I remember them when I was a kid. I launched model rockets with cameras in them in the ‘80s. None of this is new technology. Now because we’ve added the word “drone” to our vocabulary suddenly we’re all supposed to be afraid of bad guys flying RC helicopter with cameras into our bedrooms. “Terrorists” with drones are a clear and present danger? How about kids with AirHog planes with an iPhone strapped to it? Doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous does it. Neighbors might start buzzing each other with RC planes? Now that would be a little silly wouldn’t it? Worrying about the “spread and democratize the ability to fight war to every single human being” sounds great. How about working to limit access to guns? After all small drones don’t kill people, guns kill people. Guns are used to do actual harm.

This is just posturing by Google to draw attention away from what they are doing electronically.

 

cgjn

Next he will want to outlaw helicopters (except google’s, for earth-viewing monopoly… ). What is the matter Mr S.? Didn’t you say not long ago that if what you do is embarrassing maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place? Why then are YOU worried about privacy?

webjprgm

> As Mr. Schmidt himself put it, “How would you feel if your neighbor went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their backyard. It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?”

I’d shoot it down. It’s in my airspace, after all. Is that legal? No? Then I’d make an EMP cannon ...

Really, though, this is no different than a peeping Tom using binoculars today.  It’s more hi-tech and more effective, but a snoopy neighbor can already snoop.  Report him/her to the police.  Who are we actually trying to stop?

Lancashire-Witch

“This is just posturing by Google to draw attention away from what they are doing electronically.”

So why say anything at all?

Maybe worrying about drones is a bit silly; but his comments show he thinks harvesting personal info should be left to the experts.  And of course; if it isn’t evil then he thinks it’s OK!

mrmwebmax

+

geoduck, I think the difference between the RC toys and rockets you mention, as opposed to today’s drones, is worth pointing out. Yes, when I was a kid in the late 1970s, I loved model rocketry. And I remember the Estes catalog that showed the nosecone that could take a single-frame film image when the rocket tilted down from apogee. But that was a single frame of film, not a high-def video recording. There’s a world of difference there, as is the difference between an RC helicopter operated manually by dual-thumb joysticks and an autonomous drone with a high def video camera and hours of video footage capability.

How about working to limit access to guns? After all small drones don’t kill people, guns kill people. Guns are used to do actual harm.

Very true, and I am all for gun control. Yet by arguing that today’s drones are no different than yesterday’s RC toys and model rockets, you undermine your argument as follows: I could easily say, Don’t ban the AK-Whatever assault rifle, why we’ve had these things around since the single-ball musket rifle of our forefathers!

Yesterday’s Estes rocket with the single-frame photo taking capability is analogous to the single-ball musket rifle of the 1700s: Neither offer an analog to todays drones nor assault rifles. What the former is to privacy violations, the latter is to violence. We’ve always had the means to do both, it’s just the tools have, for better or worse, gotten so much better at the job.

iJack

“There’s a world of difference there, as is the difference between an RC helicopter operated manually by dual-thumb joysticks and an autonomous drone with a high def video camera and hours of video footage capability.”

Only in loiter time, and that is changing. You probably haven’t been keeping up with what is available off the shelf to everyone.

Martin Filipsson

as part of the fpv/uav community, i’d like to encourage you to do a search for fpv flights on youtube. its an amazing experience but i can assure that the privacy infringement committed from 200ft up with a low def wide angle camera is next to nothing. unless you are trying to secretly build a 1:1 replica of noahs ark you have little to worry about.

the real concern here is not the typical $400 hobbyist rig, but the fact that law enforcement can get their hand on a far more capable spy drone for sub 10k nowadays. when the taxpayers foot the bill such as sum is no object and it lowers the bar for aerial surveillance, which conveniently doesnt require a court order in many jurisdictions, from crimes in the range of human trafficking down to petty theft.

Bryan Chaffin

Great points, Martin.

wab95

Brass balls. Did I say the size of Kansas? Make that Canada.

Well, you shouldn’t require any special surveillance equipment to spot those puppies. In fact, you could pick them out from the International Space Station, “There’s the Australian Barrier Reef, and that’s the Great Wall and..oh, look, there’s Eric Schmidt!”

I have to say, that graphic is brilliant.

Lancashire-Witch said: ...but his comments show he thinks harvesting personal info should be left to the experts.  And of course; if it isn’t evil then he thinks it’s OK!

L-witch: Indeed, it should be left to the experts. A case can be made for both governmental and private sector surveillance. And don’t worry, Google will inform you when it’s evil.

Bryan et al:

Snark aside, I think that some of this emphasis in the US on drone surveillance is misdirected. Whilst everyone is busy staring up, many momentarily ignore the very real encroachments into citizen privacy that is taking place by the private sector and with our less-than-well-informed consent. These new inroads by the likes of Google and Facebook (and others including Apple) obviate the work, effort and therefore cost to governments to replicate this surveillance infrastructure, which instead they can subpoena as needed, or in case of declared emergency or in the interests of national security, can in some countries simply demand.

Make no mistake, there is a role for surveillance, as Monday’s tragic events at the Boston Marathon amply illustrate; and you can bet your last penny that the UK police and security agencies will be utilising every available means of surveillance to insure safety at next Sunday’s London Marathon.

Drones capture our imaginations largely because of their notorious and well-documented dual roles of surveillance and threat-neutralisation. Insofar as I am aware, no entity in the US has declared an interest in using drones domestically for the latter purpose (although some in the US Congress have raised that spectre), nor for that matter in the EU or UK. The type of surveillance that can be done with a flying drone, though at times effective, is extremely limited; just note where the US military deploy them - remote hideaways with practically no electronic infrastructure. Most surveillance today is electronic and, increasingly, biometric; and is occurring with increasing frequency as a cooperative exercise between government and the private sector. A flying drone is a modest supplement to the type of post-hoc or even real-time monitoring and tracking that is currently done in most urban, peri-urban and even rural locales.

As for that second function, threat termination, the crude hunter-killer drones of today, with all of their undesirable collateral damage, will, in the not so distant future, be supplanted with truly smart, even individually tailored, biometric weapons that will fulfil the sniper’s code of ‘one bullet, one kill’, except that this smart missile will, quite literally, have an individual’s name on it. 

My point is simply that, someone as smart and as connected as Eric Schmidt can easily afford to address so ostentatious and evocative a target as today’s drones, because, quite frankly, they direct attention away from his own theatre; a theatre which in the same breath, he justifies. Smart and effective.

One can argue the merits, but the price of access to information from the private sector includes not only the erosion of individual privacy, but the capacity to track and kill persons deemed a threat to a country’s national security; and the entities charged to oversee and set the ground rules to protect the rights of the individual, that is, governments, are the same entities that will access that private sector intel in a heartbeat when deemed necessary.

A conflict of interest? Perhaps and arguably. The path to personal privacy? Probably not, indeed, unlikely. The cost of convenience and security? Decidedly, unless and until we decide otherwise.

Steven

Two words: street view.

M

wab95: Excellent write-up. You’ve dressed in words what I’ve been trying to say myself for a long time. The idea of the “eye in the sky” produces a lot of emotional reactions,  to the point that I wonder if it may be triggering some instinctive reaction in our primate brain, similar to that of our hardwired fear of reptiles and darkness. For obvious reasons we have no such evolution driven fear of mining in our personal data, but the harsh reality is that the information we voluntarily surrender with our Facebook and GMail accounts, our Visa purchase habits, and our cellphone tower triangulation history, is more valuable than anything a drone can produce. Better yet it can - and is - being used to routinely track millions of subjects at a time.

Danfinger

You keep saying that word ‘privacy’. But I don’t think it means what you think. Are these drones in my house? In a department store dressing room? A bathroom? Those are examples of places where one has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Hovering over my house? I would expect whoever is watching my back yard to get bored pdq.

Steven

Say a drone came over your house and by some chance you were able to knock it out of the air with something could you be found liable?

danfinger

regarding liability of knocking out a drone over your house: Yes, yes you would be liable. Same as if your neighbor were sitting in his car out front with a camera and you threw a rock at his windshield. Totally irrelevant to the discussion regarding privacy but thanks for playing Steven! Parting gifts etc.

Bazz

In “1984” the people were the custodians of novels—they were walking books. I see we are soon to reach a point with natural gas mining and other attacks on the environment that the corporations will as in “Erin Brockovich” block information of the dangerous world their processes have released on mankind and the only weapon the citizen will have is surveillance on the bastards. 
The NRA will change their tune when hitmen gun a few NRA organizers down. So too with Schmidt—I hope that Anonymous find that he’s a homo pedophile! But I’m comforted by Douglas Adams’ prophecy of shooting the bastards in the revolution.

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