Will Drones Over Manhattan Lead to Privacy Speakeasies?

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In a radio interview last week, controversial New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg all but conceded that unmanned NYPD spy drones would one day be flying overhead in Manhattan. It’s a “scary” concept, he said, but part of a broader societal and technological shift from “privacy” to “visibility” as the new default option in our lives.

Drones over Manhattan, quite simply, are the next logical step in the erosion of our personal privacy that already includes security cameras on every corner, facial recognition technology and the ability to search your smartphone without a warrant. However, what happens when civil liberties that we take for granted today – like the ability to attend a peaceful rally or demonstration without our faces being picked out of the crowd – no longer exist?

As visibility becomes the new normal, people will surely hunt for ways to protect their privacy, even if these methods are on the cusp of legality. Wouldn’t you do the same if NYPD drones started to appear outside your apartment window one night? Much as Prohibition drove alcohol consumption underground and created a network of bootleggers and speakeasies, the creation of a modern dystopia patrolled by overhead drones could lead to a similar type of underground black market for privacy. This might include anything from off-the-shelf tools for jamming cameras and GPS-tracking devices or concealing your identity in public to surveillance-free zones similar to the speakeasies of yesteryear. Instead of gambling and alcohol, these speakeasies would offer “privacy” – a place where cameras are turned off for the customers and people could use the Internet without fear of being tracked. 

In December 2012, the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer wrote about a crowd-sourced simulation from Wikistrat that attempted to predict what we’d smuggle in the near future. Not surprisingly, “ways to go off-grid” ranked high on the list:

“The Wikistrat simulation seems to envision a future in which governments and businesses can track our every step. (This will be especially true if physical currency ever disappears.) If that happens, then there will be a vibrant black market in ways to “mask individuals’ movement through public spaces,” to travel without being tracked and to log on to the Internet unseen.”

Of course, there are some who say that unmanned spy drones overhead are not any different than security cameras hooked up to the corner bodega. Maybe all this is just a bit of techno-hysteria. After all, in last week’s radio interview, Mayor Bloomberg pointed out that he had a difficult time “intellectually” with explaining the difference between unmanned drones and security cameras. Point well taken – but consider this – security cameras hooked up to the corner bodega can’t follow you around at night. You know when you are being watched by stationary security cameras, and that’s not necessarily true with drones that can take your picture or snoop on you from hundreds of meters away.

Moreover, those NYPD surveillance drones won’t be the only drones in the sky – the whole DIY drone movement is just getting started. Some of them are harmless, of course, but others sit ready for takeoff on the dangerous precipice where Peeping Toms and Cyber Criminals hang out. It won’t just be the good guys who have drones, it’ll be the bad guys as well. Letting unmanned aerial drones into the sky sets a dangerous precedent. At some point, anyone may be able to pick your face out of a crowd and target you for future follow-up — even if it’s just for a marketing message and not something more nefarious. 

Ultimately, as Mayor Bloomberg noted in his interview, the future will be all about visibility. In a few years, privacy will almost seem like a curious artifact from a bygone analog era. We already live our lives in public online, with spyware and cookies tracking our every click and swipe as soon as we fire up our browser. With our mobile devices, we are leaving behind huge trails of data, to the point that people can track not just where we are now, but also where we’ve been. And, to top it off, new dystopian technologies with innocent-sounding names like CityScan are coming to a city near you. The arrival of overhead surveillance drones someday soon might just be the final move that pushes law-abiding citizens underground to their nearest privacy speakeasy.


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