The Day of the Drone

With policymakers in the United States and Europe committed to opening civilian airspace to non-military drones, the pilotless aircraft will only become more common. So it is crucial that the unique challenges they present to civil liberties and privacy are quickly identified and addressed.

LONDON – Drones, it seems, are suddenly everywhere. They have buzzed through the plot lines of American television thrillers like 24 and Homeland, been floated as a possible delivery option by the online retail giant Amazon.com, seen action in disaster zones in Haiti and the Philippines, and hovered menacingly over French nuclear power plants. This once secretive technology has become nearly ubiquitous.

With policymakers in the United States and Europe committed to opening civilian airspace to non-military drones, the pilotless aircraft will only become more common. So it is crucial that the unique challenges they present to civil liberties and privacy are quickly identified and addressed.

For starters, drones are significantly changing the way data are collected. Until now, most civilian drones have been equipped only with high-resolution cameras, offering police officers, search-and-rescue teams, journalists, filmmakers, and inspectors of crops and infrastructure a bird's-eye view of their surroundings. But that is about to change. Manufacturers are experimenting with drones that can collect thermal images, provide telecommunications services, take environmental measurements, and even read and analyze biometric data. In addition, some operators have become interested in collecting “big data," using a range of different sensors at the same time.

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