– Private drones were deployed this week to monitor an electrical workers’ strike to protect members from false legal claims, reigniting the ‘very tricky issue’ of how to regulate drones used for activism.
From a small drone causing panic when it landed on the White House lawn to Amazon’s plan to make deliveries by air, privately owned drones have been raising security fears around the country. But drone technology has capabilities beyond just serving the interests of corporations – and this week a union in Philadelphia reminded us of that.
The Philadelphia chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers recently purchased three drones that officials say will be used to monitor construction sites and to make sure union members aren’t breaking any laws during protests.
Releasing its first video of a January protest, chapter president John Dougherty told a local television station that the fleet is “out and about”, in part to protect the union from false claims made against it.
The chapter’s younger, tech-savvy members devised the program, a spokesperson for the group said.
This is not the first time privately owned drones have been used for activism, or in the name of accountability. Peta used them to investigate farms, and protesters used drone footage to back up their claims of unjust arrest. In 2012, images inadvertently captured by a drone enthusiast prompted an investigation into a Dallas-area meat packing plant that appeared to be dumping pig blood into a nearby river.
Gary Mortimer, who originally covered the Dallas pig blood story, said having drone technology in the hands of the public is a good thing, but that its impact can be limited.
“A system that can operate for 20 minutes [a drone] isn’t as effective as a bloke who can sit in a tree all day and all night with a telephoto lens. You have to put it in perspective,” Mortimer said.
The fact that the union’s drones were used in the name of corporate accountability nevertheless raises the same concerns that drones have been causing since they first became available to the public.
Across the US, state and municipal governments have passed regulations that control or ban the use of drones in different ways, largely out of popular demands to protect privacy.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been supportive of such legislation, especially when it comes police or governmental use of drones. However, when it comes to the private sector usage of drones, they have not called for any action.
“It’s a much more complicated issue, and often the reason is that photography, using drones, implicates first amendment rights for photography,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s a very tricky issue.”
“With respect to [private drones], there are of course still privacy issues in that realm,” said Jeramie Scott of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“There are some laws that are helpful, either trespassing laws, peeping tom or voyeurism laws, that can be used to protect one’s privacy. But there still needs to be baseline protections implemented, preferably through a new law by Congress to provide some additional protections.
“I think the transparency part of it is a big key to allow the public to participate in the use of drones as they are being integrated into the national airspace,” he added.
However, some analysts point out that most drone usage in the US has not been for surveillance – either by government, police or individuals – but rather by hobbyists, for data collection, conservation efforts or infrastructure inspection.
“I think when drones came out, in a consumer sense, a couple years ago, there was a big fear that they would be looking over private property and doing surveillance,” said Sally French, a journalist for MarketWatch and founder of Drone Girl, a website that follows the latest developments in drone technology and usage. “But that’s not really what we’re seeing them being used for.”
Since the FAA launched its registration program, nearly 200,000 drones have been registered in the US – an indicator that drone technology is much more accessible than it used to be.
“The reason the technology has changed in the last five years, rather than 10, is that electric power, both in the form of the motors and batteries, has become affordable,” Mortimer said.
“Citizens with sensors is a good thing,” he added. “It’s just up to the citizens to work together to work out how to use this data for good.”
Source – http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/19/philadelphia-union-strike-international-brotherhood-of-electrical-workers-private-drones-activism