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If Drones Get Quiet

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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May 2, 2012

In my post earlier today on the nightmare scenario for drones, I described various technological improvements that are likely to happen, which could enable pervasive drone surveillance. One key avenue of technology progress I didn’t mention is the development of quieter drones.

The amount of noise that drones make will actually be a key issue in how they integrate into American life, and one that drone-watchers should pay close attention to. Police personnel have already cited their loudness in dismissing notions that they could operate as some kind of silent surveillance device. An official with the Miami-Dade Police Department, for example, told the National Journal, “Our drone looks like a flying garbage can, and it sounds like a weed whacker. This thing is very, very noisy. It wouldn’t allow you to sneak up on anybody.”

That is probably right. If drones sound like weed whackers, then that will have a limiting effect on their impact. Ryan Calo has speculated that because of their dramatic presence, drones may actually be the spark that lights a fire under Americans to begin fighting the erosion of their privacy. Survivors of the London Blitz describe the distinctive—and terrifying—psychological impact of the noise made by Hitler’s V-1 rockets (or “Buzz Bombs”) as these “pilotless bombers” flew into southern England. As long as drones make enough noise to remind people they are there, they won’t be able fade into the background so easily so that people will forget they are there, which is probably a key prerequisite for imposing surveillance. There’s a reason surveillance cameras are encased in domes that are made of smoked glass so that we don’t see the actual cameras swiveling around pointing at us.

Think of drone buzz as a kind of “notice”—one of the key principles of privacy.

If the drones get quiet, on the other hand—and all of the above will provide a strong incentive for developers to get them quiet—then it becomes much easier for them to be deployed routinely, to stay aloft 24/7, and to become instruments in the construction of a new surveillance system that most people won’t even think about. At least in the beginning.

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