Are these the drones you’re looking for?

Remember when drones and spaceports were in a galaxy far, far away? Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Gov. John Hickenlooper have plans to bring them to life right here in our state.

Both political leaders have shown strong support for Colorado’s bid to be one of six states designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as a test site for flying unmanned aerial systems, or UASs, over U.S. airspace.

Speaking to innovators in the field, Udall urged development of the technology, saying, “We need to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the American psyche in a way that isn’t threatening or scary. Most Americans don’t think about monitoring crops, search-and-rescue operations or the numerous other civilian uses of this technology.”

The U.S. Forest Service advocates using UASs to monitor wildfires because remote-controlled drones with infrared eyes are better equipped to fly through thick smoke and track the movement of a fire than their human counterparts. With fewer young people choosing agriculture as a career, UASs could provide support for an aging farming population pressed to produce larger yields while keeping costs low for a growing population.

A life-saving UAS recently located an accident victim freezing in a remote, wooded area in Canada. As the Royal Canadian Mounted Police recounts in its official news release, “without the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) and FLIR (infrared camera), searchers would not have been able to locate the driver until daylight.”

Colorado could benefit from these civilian uses. Colorado stakeholders, led by the University of Colorado-Boulder, have touted our robust aerospace industry, established research institutions and major military presence as the ideal mix of talent and resources to succeed in attaining a test site, which would be a distributed into multiple locations statewide.

Studies estimate that the commercial UAS market will nearly double in the next 10 years, reaching $11.4 billion globally and creating more than 100,000 jobs by 2025. Local companies like Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. and Stratom Inc. already have a strong presence in this space.

To some, however, Udall’s support for unmanned machines carrying cameras flies in the face of his fight to prohibit the IRS from reading Americans’ emails without a warrant and his opposition to the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Edward Snowden’s recent revelations regarding the NSA’s domestic intelligence gathering has sparked heated debate about the constitutional right to privacy in the digital age. At issue is the Fourth Amendment, protecting U.S. citizens against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

There was a time when technology and cost were a limiting factor for surveillance. Today it is feasible to collect, analyze and store large amounts of data (email, phone records, audio/video etc.) permanently. Tracking a person’s associations via the addresses on their mail always has been legal. However, someone would need a compelling reason to want to know about a particular person’s associations to justify the significant amount of time and effort involved. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab recently released a tool called Immersion. Log in, give permission, and within a few minutes Immersion creates a map of your associations based only on the addresses of your Gmail communication.

Whether or not you care that Google and the government have access to this information (and they do), the lack of any real pain threshold in terms of technology, time and cost is disconcerting. Why not collect everyone’s associations indiscriminately and use algorithms to find the “suspicious” ones? Retroactively. Forever.

Because technology is no longer prohibitive — policy must be.

We must consider the surveillance capabilities of UASs with our eyes wide open. The potential for life-saving, scientific and commercial applications is more than adequate to support developing UAS technology in our state and benefiting from the economic opportunities created.

We may imagine drones as having particularly sinister potential, but we shouldn’t shun them just because they look creepier than a colorful metadata map. We should take a cold hard look at the many ways in which we are observed recorded and analyzed on a daily basis and make sure we have policies and regulations in place that balance privacy and security in a manner consistent with the fourth amendment. Are these the drones you’re looking for? Perhaps.    

Angelique Espinoza is the public affairs manager, and Elisabeth Patterson is a public affairs associate for the Boulder Chamber. They can be reached at 303-938-2077 or angelique.espinoza@boulderchamber.com.

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