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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published February 24 2014

UND panel studying privacy in drone age

GRAND FORKS – The Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department has deployed small unmanned aircraft systems nine times in the last 10 months, a few them over populated areas of the county.

So far, there have been no complaints from the public about privacy or other concerns, said Sheriff Bob Rost. “I think they look at the circumstances and what it’s being used for.”

Nevertheless, a committee at the University of North Dakota, which leases the drones to his department, is developing a privacy policy to govern the use of the UAS, or drones. There is no written policy for now, so questions of whether a drone operation might violate constitutional protections of privacy are being handled on a case-by-case basis by the committee.

“We are working on finding a way to solve these issues,” said Thomasine Heitkamp, chairwoman of UND’s social work department and of the UAS Research Compliance Committee. “The most important thing this committee brings is transparency.”

The 19-member committee plans to hold focus groups and community surveys reaching across the state to help it develop a more formal policy. Some data is expected in April. The committee’s next meeting is March 28.

Heitkamp and other committee members say their work is important because nobody else is addressing the issue.

UND, which has a UAS research center, is at the heart of a multifaceted effort by state and local officials to develop the drone industry here. The effort was given a boost in late December when the Federal Aviation Administration named North Dakota one of six test sites for integrating drones into the same airspace as manned aircraft.

Surveillance fears

Privacy concerns have been largely muted in North Dakota.

A bill that would have required law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant before deploying a drone went before the Legislature last year and failed. Drone proponents said such restrictions could stifle the industry’s development here.

But that’s not a fear shared in other parts of the country. Some states hosting FAA drone test sites, such as Texas and Virginia, have passed laws restricting drone use. Virginia prohibited law enforcement agencies from using drones until at least the middle of 2015. Alaska and New York, which have test sites, are also mulling restrictions.

Next door in Minnesota, privacy proponents are urging the state Legislature to address drone use as well.

Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told a legislative committee last month that law enforcement agencies should have to obtain a search warrant and show probable cause that a crime has been committed before deploying a drone for any kind of surveillance.

“Unmanned aircraft carrying cameras raise the prospect of a significant new avenue for the surveillance of American life,” she told lawmakers.

In an interview, she said that small drones like those used by the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department don’t yet pose dire threats of surveillance. One of her concerns is the development of technology that would allow drone users to identify and track people across a whole city while flying miles above the ground. The military has already developed something of the kind, a project called ARGUS-IS that’s carried aloft by a drone the size of a Bell Ranger helicopter.

Limited ability

The four small drones used by the sheriff’s department here are not nearly as capable.

Barry Milavetz, a UND research vice president and a compliance committee member, said they can only go a few hundred feet in the air. “We are not talking about UAS like the military where it hovers at 40,000 feet. We are talking about something pretty small with a pretty limited range. So that also enters into the deliberations of the committee.”

The images available from 300 feet from these 5-pound drones have limited resolution. “You can’t see a face,” he said. “You can see people but you can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman.”

Still, the committee is taking a cautious approach.

One of the “mission sets” approved by the committee for the drones – but still not used – is traffic control at large events at, say, the Alerus Center. If that happens, the committee has decided it won’t allow any images of vehicles to be recorded or stored as data, Milavetz said.

“We are concerned about what the future may hold, but we don’t want to make our decisions about what may come down the road,” he said. “We want to make sure our decisions are about what we have now.”

No surveillance

Since May, the sheriff’s department has used small drones to look for crime suspects in farm fields near Portland, for drowning victims in Grand Forks and Minto, and for photographing the scenes of serious accidents in Grand Forks, among other uses. The department has FAA authority to fly in 16 counties in northeast North Dakota.

The latest drone deployment was Feb. 7, when the department used a Qube, a model-sized helicopter, a few dozen feet over the site of a fatal two-vehicle crash to provide detailed mapping for investigators.

Al Frazier, a UND aviation professor and a sheriff’s deputy, piloted the drone. He said he must get FAA authorization for each deployment, which takes about an hour. He must also fly the drone within line of sight, which usually means being no more than a few dozen yards away from the aircraft.

The UAS is ferried to the scene in the back of a vehicle, so there is no worry about flying over private areas, such as backyards, where people expect privacy, Rost said.

Potential for good

Milavetz said he’s reminded of the concerns three decades ago about the use of recombinant DNA, which is behind such technology as molecular cloning and other cutting-edge genetic research.

The worst fears of the new science were not realized as public and private entities drew up protocols, he said.

“It turns out that there were tremendous benefits that came out of those recommendations,” he said. “Almost all the medications coming out now are a consequence of using rDNA.”

The same balancing act can result in reasonable standards for drone research that protect people’s rights while providing the benefits of a new technology, he said. “You could probably save a life and the risk to privacy is pretty small.”