Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why Google's executive chairman is totally wrong about "drones"

Eric Schmidt
In a interview published in the Guardian newspaper on Saturday, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt called for tough regulations on unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called drones.

The BBC reported that Schmidt said:
"How would you feel if your neighbour went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their backyard. It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?"
Schmidt went on to suggest that only governments should have access to unmanned technologies:
"It's got to be regulated... It's one thing for governments, who have some legitimacy in what they're doing, but have other people doing it... it's not going to happen."

Regulation is important; that much is true. It's also true that unmanned systems have the potential to penetrate areas which we normally consider private, such as back yards.

First, the idea that drones can "fly over your house all day" is demonstrably and categorically false.

The kind of vehicles that can silently hover in the manner in which Mr. Schmidt describes can fly, at most, for 15 minutes on a single battery charge. And if there is inclement weather, these vehicles cannot fly at all.

Second, the idea that only governments should have access to unmanned technologies is antithetical to a democracy.

This isn't just a matter of "watching the watchmen," i.e., watching on government "drone" activity with other "drones." Unmanned technologies open the opportunity for journalists and everyday citizens to obtain information about their communities that is relevant to personal well-being and the democratic process.

For an example, I'll defer to the individual from Texas who revealed the contamination of a public waterway by using a radio-controlled aircraft. Additionally, I'll defer to the seven reasons why journalists should pick up unmanned aircraft systems.

Third and finally, Mr. Schmidt isn't being accurate with his terms.

What does Mr. Schmidt mean by "drones"? A "drone" either is a type of bee, or an aircraft or watercraft that is controlled remotely. That's the boilerplate dictionary deffinition.

What Mr. Schmidt seems to mean is an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS. That's the proper deffinition accepted by both the aerospace industry, and the official government body that regulates aircraft (the Federal Aviation Administration).

That's not to say that there aren't such things as drones. There are. But they are used as target practice in the air force. Those other things that have cameras and spy on people? That's a totally different technology.

This isn't the first time people in a position of power have denigrated unmanned systems. But it does seem to be the first time a person who supposedly possesses a high degree of technical acumen has presented false information about unmanned technology.

I'll let you readers be the judge of this, but what do you think is the greater privacy risk? A small buzzing aircraft that can only fly around for 15 minutes, only outside your premises, and only in fair weather? Or a $260 billion corporation that aggregates all your personal data -- from search results, the content you read, the videos you watch, to bio-data, personal emails, personal contacts, GPS location, to your phone calls -- and who might at any time give that data to the government?

Here's some direct quotes from Schmidt, which helps elucidate Google's privacy policy:
"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
"If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines - including Google - do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."
 Or, instead, you could take the word of a former Google employee who left the company because its mission shifted to "learning as much about people’s personal lives as possible."

So forgive me if I take the privacy concerns of Google's former CEO with a grain of salt. I'll take my chances with the aerial robots, thank you.

Full disclosure: this blog is hosted on a Google server.