THIS WEEK IN SURVEILLANCE

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DRONE ATTACKS AND SURVEILLANCE ARE ON THE RISE. They can be operated by almost anyone, as endless YouTube videos including overhead vistas of adventures and travels demonstrate.

But drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UASs), are increasingly impacting the rights and lives of average citizens in more significant ways.

A recent Joint Intelligence Bulletin (JIB) not meant for public consumption formally determined the first ever drone attack on the U.S. power grid.

Use of drones by civilian authorities including police and other government agencies, meanwhile, has dramatically increased from even a few years ago.

The citizen rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has identified some of the ways that drones are usurping privacy and other rights Americans have long enjoyed:

“Drones are capable [of] highly advanced surveillance, and drones already in use by law enforcement can carry various types of equipment including live-feed video cameras, infrared cameras, heat sensors, and radar. Some military versions can stay in air for hours or days at a time, and their high-tech cameras can scan entire cities, or alternatively, zoom in and read a milk carton from 60,000 feet. They can also carry wifi crackers and fake cell phone towers that can determine your location or intercept your texts and phone calls. Drone manufacturers even admit they are made to carry ‘less lethal’ weapons such as tasers or rubber bullets.”

Drones were first developed for military applications, and have been in use in that capacity for decades.

But miniaturization and other technological advances have made the technology widely sought after by civilian authorities and average users.

A large part of that has been an effort of tech companies to develop a drone market, building features with next to no regard for ethical issues or abuses.

Drone use greatly expanded in 2016, following Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval of hundreds of new exemptions for firms to fly drones in the United States under FAA Part 107.

Additional use cases encompassed a variety of sectors, including insurance, construction, and agriculture, opening a wide breadth of commercial drone uses.

According to Statista, sales of consumer drones in the United States to dealers exceeded $1.25 billion in 2020. The overall drone industry is expected to be worth $100 billion, according to Goldman Sachs, because of rising business and government demand for drones.

The drone services market is anticipated to reach $63.6 billion by 2025, Business Insider reported, while consumer drone sales in 2021 were estimated to be at least 29 million dollars.

In that context, it’s not surprising that the capabilities built into drones to make them attractive purchases, have created a myriad of uses, as well as dangers.

First Drone Attack on U.S. Power Grid Recently Confirmed

This past October, a significant predicated danger was formally confirmed as reality by a U.S. Joint Intelligence Bulletin (JIB). The bulletin acknowledged that a July, 2020 drone incident at a power substation in Pennsylvania, was an intentional power grid attack.

The JIB assessment concluded:

"This is the first known instance of a modified UAS [unmanned aerial system] likely being used in the United States to specifically target energy infrastructure. We assess that a UAS recovered near an electrical substation was likely intended to disrupt operations by creating a short circuit to cause damage to transformers or distribution lines, based on the design and recovery location."

Though not meant for public consumption, the JIB was obtained by ABC News and other outlets, which reported on portions of the document.

A small quadcopter-type “DJI Mavic 2” drone with a heavy copper wire linked below it through nylon cables, was used in the failed attack.

It’s the first formally classified incident of a probable drone assault on U.S. energy infrastructure.  But the JIB acknowledged that such attacks are likely to become more prevalent going forward.

Localities Adopting—and Fighting Against—Drone Surveillance

The use of drones for pervasive, warrantless surveillance is growing in communities. 

A recent case in Concord, California was outlined in October by the EFF.

The City adopted a drone program which failed to establish limits to protect fundamental constitutional rights of citizens, according to a coalition including the ACLU, the EFF, and more than a dozen local community groups that petitioned for safeguards.

The coalition opposed the drone program. But it argued that in case of adoption, the program should at least ensure fundamental safeguards to avoid abuse.

A letter by the coalition outlined a number of safeguards, including:

  • Drones should be deployed only with a warrant, or in an emergency that threatens death or serious bodily injury to a person.  All deployments should be thoroughly documented, and that documentation must be made publicly available.
  • Facial recognition technology, artificial intelligence, automated tracking, heat sensors, license plate readers, cell-phone interception, and lethal and non-lethal weapons should be prohibited as incorporated technologies to UAS drones.
  • There must be clear rules regarding access to UAS footage.  Officers suspected of misconduct must not be allowed to view footage until they have made an initial statement regarding the episode.  People depicted in footage must have access to the footage. Also, footage depicting police use of force must be available to the public. Similar to the flaws in body worn cameras, police can exercise too much control over the video before the public sees it without police oversight.

The Concord City Council chose not to implement any of the recommendations. As a result, local rights advocates have said they fear that Concord will see the same kind of drone usage happening in cities like Chula Vista, where drones are sent out on virtually every 911 call. 


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