October 13, 2013

The little drone that could

EDITORIAL                                                                                                                 Providence Journal

The eyes of UConn are upon you. Or apparently, they one day could be, should you happen onto the University of Connecticut campus. UConn, The Journal recently learned, was the only New England institution among 81 entities that (so far) have applied for federal permission to fly drones. But as the small, unmanned craft show increasing promise as surveillance tools, that list is certain to grow.
In a pair of fascinating but chilling stories published on Sept. 22, Journal staff writers G. Wayne Miller and Paul Edward Parker charted the promise and perils of civilian drone use. Though the technology is still in its early stages, an industry trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, predicts that drones will add $9.1 billion to the economy over the next decade. Drones could be used to enhance news and weather coverage, survey land, manage disasters, locate missing people and corner criminals.
The drawback, of course, is that they pose a profound new threat to privacy. Experimenting with a small “hobby” drone purchased for $300 at the Wrentham Premium Outlets, Messrs. Miller and Parker were able to record surprisingly clear images of a state representative, Teresa Tanzi, as she moved about her backyard. Privacy fencing was no real obstacle for the drone; it even gazed through sliding glass doors to capture a detailed image of Ms. Tanzi’s bedroom.
A Democrat representing South Kingstown, Representative Tanzi had supplied permission for the experiment, to dramatize the need for laws restricting drone use. But even she was surprised at how disquieting the experience was. Last year, Ms. Tanzi sponsored a drone bill that never reached a vote. She expects to reintroduce this year. Two state senators, Nicholas Kettle (R-Coventry) and Dawson Hodgson (R-North Kingstown) introduced similar legislation.
These legislators are on the right track. A legal framework for the use of this rapidly evolving technology is badly needed. Certainly, drones can become an invaluable tool for law enforcement. But, as with wiretaps, warrants should generally be required. Other steps can be taken to minimize government intrusion, as well as private mischief.
During the next General Assembly session, Rhode Islanders should add their voices to the debate, and ensure that a good balance is struck between individual privacy and the public interest.