Opinion: Drones spur privacy concerns

July 16, 2014


Last week, Amazon petitioned the FAA for permission to use drones to deliver packages to customers. This new delivery service, announced last December, and called “Prime Air,” will, according to company executives, revolutionize Internet commerce.

I have been thinking about this for the past several days since the announcement of the petition and I have been trying to decide whether this is simply a stunt designed to appeal to “uber” geeks or whether it is really a viable, innovative commercial proposal. On reflection I have decided that it is probably both. It is also, in my opinion, creepy.

One of the courses that I teach at Kansas University is “The Law of War.” One of the major themes in that course is how new technologies affect the waging of war and the difficulty new military technologies pose for those who attempt to formulate laws that govern both international and domestic armed conflict. Nothing in the past decade has provided greater concern to international and national lawmakers than the use of drones both for surveillance and for weapons delivery. Thus, the idea that our skies may soon be filled with Amazon-owned drones is one that gives me pause.

Of course, Amazon would not be flying predator drones nor would its drones be armed with Hellfire missiles. In fact, the pictures released by Amazon show relatively small, insect like machines that would carry a payload consisting of the goods that we all order from the company. I doubt that Amazon would deliberately use a box of books carried by a drone to kill someone. (Of course, there is always the possibility of accidents happening; being hit by a 5-pound box of books dropped from 100 feet would not be pleasant.)

My difficulty is that I am not sure that I really trust Amazon or any other giant corporation to fly drones over my home. What is to stop them from equipping these drones with cameras and other surveillance equipment that could be used by Amazon to see what we’re having for dinner or listening to on the radio or, God forbid, doing in the “privacy” of our bedrooms.

Given what companies like Amazon do with the information about us they gain online, given what those self-driven Google-mobiles with their top-mounted cameras have been doing as they drive by our homes, I simply do not trust Amazon or any other large retail corporation to have permission to fill the skies with their drones. I fervently hope that the FAA denies Amazon the permission it seeks. Indeed, I hope that the FAA continues its policy of prohibiting most commercial use of drones.

It may seem to some readers that my position is that of a Luddite, one totally opposed to modern technology. But it’s not. My position is that drones have shown themselves to be unbelievably effective spies in military situations, let alone almost unstoppable weapons. I simply don’t trust retail merchants with those kinds of capabilities. Not now. Probably not ever. I say let’s stick with the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS. They do a good job and don’t spy on their customers. At least I don’t think that they do.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


Leslie Swearingen 3 years, 8 months ago

In a letter to the FAA dated Wednesday, Amazon said it is developing aerial vehicles as part of Amazon Prime Air. The aircraft can travel over 50 miles per hour and carry loads of up to 5 pounds. About 86 percent of Amazon's deliveries are 5 pounds or less, the company said.


Packages would be delivered in 30 minutes or less which means the drones would be numerous to be able to do that. And, what if you don't get your package in half an hour? Is it free? What are charges going to be for this service? It seems to me that now delivery costs as much as the item being delivered. Who is making these drones? Who is programming them? In order to deliver packages to Lawrence, where are the drones going to be flying from?

How many will need this service?

Mike, thank you for your article.

Chris Scafe 3 years, 8 months ago

Imagine what the Israelis and Palestinians could do to each other with these. The Israelis could hit their targets with 5 pound bombs and reduce collateral damage, and the Palestinians could hit their targets. Imagine an attack on a presidential motorcade with a hundred 5 pound bombs coming from all directions. Imagine what terrorists could do to sporting events or parades. Imagine what Al Qaeda could do to military convoys with these. They could drop a few packages in the road to stop a convoy, then bring in another hundred or more to destroy the rest of the vehicles and the people in them. I imagine that the drones could be programmed to jink their way in to avoid defensive fire. I suppose my alarm comes too late; the technology has already been developed. Now we need to develop defenses against such drones. Use your imagination on how the drones could be used, then use your imagination to protect yourself.

On the upside, you could save yourself a trip to O'Reilly's by having a spark plug delivered to your driveway in 30 minutes or less.

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