The Paparazzi Want Drones

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In a stark reminder for what drones could mean for privacy in the future, paparazzi giant TMZ is one of a myriad of corporate, media and government entities petitioning the government for permission to use surveillance drones.

And we’re not just talking about the massive, missile-firing drones like the ones the military uses. More modern drones are as small as birds, and can fly for miles and hover outside of windows.

WASHINGTON — The federal government is rushing to open America’s skies to tens of thousands of drones — pushed to do so by a law championed by manufacturers of the unmanned aircraft.

Yet questions remain about their potential to invade privacy and about their reliability, as two incidents on the U.S.-Mexico border demonstrate.

The drone makers have sought congressional help to speed their entry into a domestic market valued in billions of dollars.

The 60-member House of Representatives’ “drone caucus” — including the co-chairman, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo — has helped push that agenda. Over the past four years, caucus members have drawn nearly $8 million in drone-related campaign contributions, an investigation by Hearst Newspapers and the Center for Responsive Politics shows.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been flooded with applications from police departments, universities, private corporations and even the celebrity gossip site TMZ, all seeking to use drones that range from devices the size of a hummingbird to full-sized aircraft like those used by the U.S. military to target al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan and elsewhere.

What’s interesting about this privacy debate is that it’s not really so much about a change in policy as it’s about a change in technology. Drones, even just a few years ago, were seen as futuristic. The thought of them being used by local law enforcement, or media outlets, seemed far-fetched at one time.

Now, not so much.

The same thing has happened with the internet. Thanks to the huge amount of data online, and our ability to search it quickly and effectively, things that were always public information from court records to the view of your home from a public street are now more accessible than ever. It creeps people out.

Nothing has changed, mind you. Those court records were always public. It was never illegal for someone to look at and photograph your home from the street. But now that it’s on the internet in front of an audience of, potentially, hundreds of millions people are starting to feel differently.

It could very well be that a lot of the privacy and anonymity we once enjoyed are things of the past.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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