Could Domestic Surveillance Drones Spur Tougher Privacy Laws?

Unmanned, camera-equipped flying robots may help to usher in a new era of electronic privacy laws

2 min read
Could Domestic Surveillance Drones Spur Tougher Privacy Laws?

Have you ever been spied on by a surveillance drone? No? Are you sure? Maybe it looked like a hummingbird. Or an insect. Or maybe it was just really high up. Maybe there's one looking in your window right now, and if so, there's no law that says it shouldn't.

In a recent article in the Stanford Law Review, Ryan Calo discusses how domestic surveillance drones would fit into the current legal definitions of privacy (and violations thereof), and how these issues could inform the future of privacy policy. The nutshell? Surveillance robots have the potential to fundamentally degrade privacy to such an extent that they could serve as a catalyst for reform. 

Domestic surveillance robots aren't as much of an issue now as they could be, thanks mostly to the stick-in-the-muddedness of the FAA that keeps unmanned aircraft from doing anything exciting. But eventually, that's going to change, and there are already precedents (legal ones) for how domestic agencies might (read: will) start using robots. Basically, there seems to be essentially no legal restrictions which would prevent the police from having drones flying around all the time, watching people.

Clearly, this is something that we as a society should discuss, and we may decide this kind of surveillance should be illegal, or at least restricted to some extent, especially since it's getting easier and easier to build or buy camera-capable flying robots. In the near future, celebrities (like me) will be constantly surrounded by a swarm of face-reading, photo-snapping autonomous robots that will necessitate the development of anti-surveillance drone drones, loaded up with little miniature air-to-air missiles, which themselves are little flying robots.

Of course, all this goes beyond surveillance and drones. We've got these same sorts of legal issues popping up all over the place with regard to to robotics, as technology fast outpaces the limited amount of foresight that was employed when coming up with policies meant to manage current technological issues as opposed to future ones. And as we've mentioned before, there's a risk that reactionary (as opposed to proactive) policies could seriously undermine the robotics industry, which is why forethought is so important.

You can read the rest of Ryan Calo's article, "The Drone as Privacy Catalyst," at the link below.

[ Stanford Law Review ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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