Drones and privacy–will you allow it, or shoot them down?

There’s quite a bit of talk these days about drones, or unmanned aircraft (UAS).  These have several problems, when you get right down to it.

  1. Noise pollution – it’s annoying enough when Sherrif’s helicopters fly overhead and loiter for awhile, but while a UAS would probably be quieter, it’s still not silent.
  2. Safety – If one of these malfunctions or the remote pilot makes a mistake, they can crash, doing damage to persons and property
  3. Privacy – are you comfortable having cameras over your home or business, watching you and recording what you are doing?  If you are, perhaps Russia would be a better place for you to live.

I am mainly concerned about #3, though the first two certainly are things to think about.  As time go by we (as a nation) are slowly giving up our privacy by allowing our lives to become more public (we post personal stuff on Facebook or Twitter and then wonder how stalkers know about us for example).  Todays youth has grown up with this pervasive social network and doesn’t even give a thought to how their personal privacy is compromised by participating.  It seems it’s only us old farts who grew up before this became prevalent who look at it and say “wow, that’s not good, nope, I’m not doing that”.

Unmanned drones are another thing that is starting to take off (ok, sorry, couldn’t resist that).  If we sit idly by and allow this to happen, then there will be no concept of privacy, even in your own back yard.

One town in Colorado has a proposal drafted by resident Phillip Steel to do something about this, in a very American manner.  According to Steel, “We do not want drones in town.  They fly in town, they get shot down”.  Excellent!

The proposal was to sell $25 hunting licenses, and offered a $100 reward to anyone who shot down a drone “known to be owned or operated by the United States Government”.  Wow, how cool is THAT??

The FAA of course (in their traditional role as spoilsports) takes issue with this, stating “Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane”.  They claim that they are responsible for airspace and safety and that a damaged aircraft could crash and hurt somebody or damage property (hmm… kinda like my #2 above even without the gunman, but I’m sure they feel THOSE risks are acceptable).

Personally, I think that if everybody took the attitude that Mr. Steel has, that the FAA would find it difficult or impossible to enforce on a large scale, the government would find that they are spending a LOT of money to replace these expensive planes, and the whole thing would fizzle, much to the delight of privacy loving folks everywhere.

Here’s another entertaining alternative, borrowed from WWII.  The Germans had flying bombs which had no pilot and would fly across the channel, run out of Petrol (it’s England, folks), then crash and explode.  They were quite terrifying as weapons because of their random targets and because you could hear them and knew you were safe… until the engine stopped.  Very Hitchcock-esque from a terror standpoint, but I digress.  The allies came up with a good solution.  They’d fly up next to these things, put a wingtip under their wing and then roll their plane.  This caused the bomb to bank, veer off course, and crash in the channel.  Wouldn’t it be fun to do that with a Drone?  Of course I never would do such a terrible thing, and I would never recommend that anybody else do such a terrible and rebellious act, but it’s fun to think about isn’t it?  I bet there are a number of other fun scenarios that don’t involve something as direct as shooting a drone down.  This could be a fun video game!!

Here’s a short article in AVWEB about this amusing Colorado proposal.

Invasion of personal privacy – Big Brother becomes Little Brother

People like to complain about the specter of Big Brother – our government watching our every move, “protecting” us, regulating us, and generally sticking their bureaucratic nose where it doesn’t belong.  With technological advancements, this sort of thing becomes easier to do and more monitoring becomes possible.  The scary part is this is now expanding to little brother: Parents.

I have talked to parents who delight in these newfound abilities to spy on their kids.  Cell-phone GPS tracking can now track your kid (or anyone you have influence over) without their knowledge.  Alerts can be sent to you if they stray outside certain “zones” you can define (such as school, work, etc).  Time-sensitive alerts can be sent if the drone (your kid) is not where they are supposed to be at 10:00 at night for example.  There is now a device you can get from your insurance carrier (currently in beta test) which plugs into the car’s diagnostic port and provides a real-time tracking feed.  You can track speed (is Johnny driving too fast?), you can track all kinds of telemetry data, all of which is subpoena-able in the event of an accident (possibly not in your best interest).

There are other surveillance techniques and technologies like these which enable you to do some very detailed monitoring of your offspring.  So, it’s clear that we can do this and more now!

The burning question is (or should be)… should we do this?  Just because the individual being monitored is your son or daughter, it doesn’t make any difference.  This is a serious invasion of privacy.  I can’t wait for the first lawsuit where some kid sues their parents over this.

One of the key things we need to learn when growing up is responsibility and trust.  This is a two way street.  You learn to trust people, or not, and you learn to be responsible or suffer the consequences.  You also learn about respect.  Respect is not something that you get at birth, it’s something you earn, and must constantly maintain – sort of like a good credit rating.  If we don’t trust our kids, they won’t trust us.  If we don’t respect our kids, they won’t respect us.  If we spy on our kids, perhaps our kids will spy on us.  Do we want to encourage that?

I know if I were a kid growing up today and I found out my parents were doing this to me, they would lose all my respect and trust in a heartbeat, and those are MUCH easier to lose than regain.

Google Chrome – data tracking and privacy

Ok, so I'm a speed freak.  I'll admit it.  I like fast cars, fast airplanes, and fast browsers!  So, when I heard about Google's Chrome browser, and how fast it was supposed to be, I had to give it a shot.

It turns out that it IS fast, and for me works on most of the websites I've visited.  Some websites have issues, so I just fire up a different browser (FireFox or Internet Explorer) and life goes on.

One of the more bothersome things about both Chrome and Internet Explorer, is that they have data tracking built in, and send results back to the mothership.  Yes, this is an invasion of your privacy, but they justify it by saying that they just collect statistical data, and use it to give you targeted ads (really, just a more clever version of Spam, but delivered via your web browser).  The idea is that if what they are advertising is something you want, then you won't feel it's Spam, but you'll be pleased to get it.  I'm dubious, but we'll see.  As a friend of mine said recently, if this leads to a downturn in the amount of email Spam we receive (as advertisers look for a more effective medium), then that's a good thing.

Right now, I'm testing IE 9 beta, and it seems to be pretty good for the most part, but I'm still not ready to abandon Chrome.  So, given that it is my browser of choice, and I don't like the privacy issues, how should that be dealt with?  Wikipedia has a great write-up on Chrome, and in it you'll find the following chart which details what data is captured and when:

Chrome sends details about its usage to Google through both optional and non-optional user tracking mechanisms.

Tracking methods
Method Information sent When Optional?
Installation Randomly generated token included in installer. Used to measure success rate of Google Chrome.

On installation

No
RLZ identifier Encoded string, according to Google, contains non-identifying information how Chrome was downloaded and its install week, and is used to measure promotional campaigns. Google provides the source code to decode this string.
  • On Google search query
  • On first launch and first use of address bar
Partial
clientID Unique identifier along with logs of usage metrics and crashes. Unknown Yes
Suggest Text typed into the address bar While typing Yes
Page not found Text typed into the address bar Upon receiving "Server not found" response Yes
Bug tracker Details about crashes and failures Unknown

Yes

Personally, I don't really care about the non-optional data capture, as it only happens once on installation.  I really don't mind if Google knows that I installed their product.  The RLZ identifier doesn't bother me too much either.  The ones at the bottom though, are more Evil in nature.  They capture every website you go to, and everything you search for.  Google claims that this data will only ever be used for statistical purposes, but we all know that if an institution has data, they'll either use it for their own ends, or the government will subpoena the data and use it for THEIR ends.  Either way, not good for regular folk like you and I.

The good part is, you can turn this offHere's how:  Open "Options" from the tool menu (the one with the wrench).  You'll get the google chrome options window.  Click on the "Under the Hood" tab at the top of the window, which gets you into the more geeky settings.  Click on the thumbnail below to zoom in.

Look for the item about sending statistics (circled in red) and un-check it.  Click "done" and you are finished.  Chrome will now not send any of the tracking information back to the mothership.  This includes all items in the chart above with a green "Yes" in the right-hand column.  It's not obvious that this one checkbox does all that (such as address bar & search text tracking), which is IMHO a tad misleading, but this is all you need to do.