The drone at the window and your pregnant credit card: Notes on privacy

A great South Park episode once featured panicked parents, terrified of child abductors, forcing their kids to wear “Child Tracker” helmets that made them look like crosses between Marvin the Martian and a 600-channel satellite dish. Technology has gotten sleeker, if not simpler, since those innocent days. Now, if it’s 10 PM and you wonder where your child is — what opium den or white slave ring she’s wandered into — you can check the data your personal, aerial drone is feeding you.

They’re not just for repressive governments (and human rights organizations!) anymore. The new thing is the DIY drone — for “do-it-yourself”; rhymes, I think, with “die.” Forbes magazine, a great promoter of cheap consumer technology, cites a Canadian technie waxing enthusiastic about the little devils’ potential:

People are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. …

The neat thing is that, instead of a telescreen giving the State a window into your private life, you can have a hovering camera outside your neighbor’s window to watch theirs.  The work of keeping tabs on thoughtcrime is thus not only decentralized but, in conservative fashion, privatized. “It is entirely conceivable,” he writes,

that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. … This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents, that would be a lot of drones.

And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods.

Drones (upper R) classical style: Put those clothes on, young lady! Your mother can see you!

In fact, why wait till you go into a neighborhood?  Why not keep the drones hanging constantly, like Saruman’s White Hand, over doubtful places where darker people live? I don’t know how it is up placid Toronto way, but in the Big Apple white people are tired of that flaming sword of fear preventing them from entering Bed-Stuy to price the housing.

For some years New York City civil libertarians have been diligently at work (presumably observed by the FBI and other notekeepers) recording where surveillance cameras in Manhattan operate. As this map they’ve produced reveals, there’s a wealth of such devices downtown, but a distinct dearth north of 125th Street.  This means, reassuringly, that white folks in lower Manhattan are protected from Harlem’s poorer tribes attempting an incursion across the Great Wall; but when it comes to knowing what the barbarians are doing over their own campfires, no one has an idea. A few drones whizzing over Lenox Avenue and Sugar Hill could put this to rights.

If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl [sic], a digital pet?

I never trusted those goddamn owls. Satanic.

An expert on privacy and robotics (another thing you wouldn’t have seen outside a sci-fi novel 20 years ago) observes that while “you might think [private citizens’] drones would already be ubiquitous,” the Federal Aviation Administration has slapped restrictions on  unmanned aircraft systems. However, police and other “public agencies” are lobbying to rolle these back.  “Recently the state of Oklahoma asked the FAA for a blanket waiver of eighty miles of airspace.” (What the hell could be going on in Oklahoma?) “The FAA faces increasing pressure to relax its restrictions and is considering rulemaking to reexamine drone use in domestic airspace.” Meanwhile,

Agency rules impede the use of drones for now; United States privacy law does not. There is very little in our privacy law that would prohibit the use of drones within our borders. Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. In 1986, the Supreme Court found no search where local police flew over the defendant’s backyard with a private plane. A few years later, the Court admitted evidence spotted by an officer in a helicopter looking through two missing roof panels in a greenhouse. Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments.

Dead diva: Easier with a drone

The author argues that drones’ noisy intrusions will actually galvanize the law into acting against all these violations. They’re just too extreme: “Drones may help restore our mental model of a privacy violation. They could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.” But I wonder; especially if, as he indicates, the media get involved, and TMZ and Perez Hilton have their warring aircraft locked in on the radio frequency of Lindsay Lohan’s ankle bracelet. You may be offended when it’s your own intimacy that’s invaded, but fascinated when it’s somebody else’s.

The National Enquirer infamously printed a photo of Whitney Houston’s corpse last month, and while sales figures haven’t been released, you can bet — judging by the fact that CNN got 10 times its usual Saturday viewing audience just for showing mourners’ minked backs trudging into the funeral — they spiked. Consumers want the famous, live or dead, splayed for inspection. Incidentally, Forbes separately tells us that  a hanger-on beautifully named Raffles van Exel snapped the doleful photo, and apparently hawked it to the Enquirer for six figures. If you were an editor, and could get the same shot cheaper from a birdbot spying through a stained-glass window, cutting out the middleman in the process, wouldn’t you jump?  And how many would buy it!  The economics are not on the side of indignation.  What, too, if Peter Tatchell got his hands on a drone?  Run for your reputations, sexually healthy civil rights heroes! Not even Martin Luther King would be safe. I can see Peter proclaiming that he caught Martin masturbating to Rawhide in his grave.

Forbes also carries more sceptical approaches to the DIY drone question. Venkatesh Rao, an aerospace engineer, worried in its pages three weeks ago that the current bubble is a bit weird. Although he admits that “Heck, my wife is now insisting that I help her build one,” he says: “I don’t get it. What exactly do people expect to do with their own private drones?” In addition to the Superpaparrazo idea, he cites some other options:

  1. Start a revolution. If drones are the new guns, and the burgeoning political movement to ensure a “right to bear drones” succeeds, you and a few hundred of your friends can secretly build a drone swarm. …
  2. Attach guns to drones. There is absolutely nothing stopping drone hackers from doing this technically, and there is almost no conceivable scenario where this will ever be legal, but if you’re on the wrong side of the law already, for murder say, what’s one more charge for “attaching gun to drone”? The mayhem possible with a bunch of armed drones would make Columbine look like a kid’s tea party.

And he’s not very sanguine about the idea that citizen drones offer people a liberatory way around the government:

[The] only advantage the world of private citizens has over the military-industrial complex is sheer numbers. If, as some commentators speculate, drones are going to be citizen weapons to act as a check-and-balance to absolutist police-state tendencies, it will be through sheer numbers. A handful of extremists maintaining serious drone capability could be sneezed out of existence by any modern military within minutes. The trend only becomes serious if drone ownership becomes as common as gun ownership.

Great. Every Minuteman will have a Minuteman; every band of lunatics, its own Luftwaffe. The universe of Mad Max, where they only had trucks to fight with, will seem the Peaceable Kingdom by comparison.

Drone (upper R), classical style: My eagle doesn't like what you've been doing

Surely the government will restrict the technology before then — not for the sake of privacy, but for safety. (Not ours, its own.) The real question, though, is what will happen to our intimate lives when not just the state but the corporate order have vastly expanded their abilities to spy. Business, after all, equally surely has its (remaining non-mechanical) eye on this new opportunity both to collect information on citizen-consumers — by camera, infrared, and any other legal means — and to commodify it in its turn. For whether the subject is a celebrity or an ordinary credit-card holder, information is power, and power is money, and somebody will pay.

Forbes, once again, has a story (via the New York Timesthat’s not so much a cautionary tale — who will be cautioned by it? shoppers never beware — as an allegory of the age. Target, the US megastore, hires its own statisticians devoted to “consumer tracking.” The firm “assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address, that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources.”

Marketeers pant particularly damply for the new-parent demographic, eager to get them hooked early, before “they turn into rampant — and loyal — buyers of all things pastel, plastic, and miniature.” Babies need so many things these days; the last time a new mother stayed with me, the neighbors thought an army regiment was moving in.  And Target’s 50% revenue growth from 2002-2010 may partly be owing to statisticians “helping the retail giant corner the baby-on-board market.” The nerds used Science. They

ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but [they] noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc.

They identified “about 25 products” that, taken together, added up to each shopper’s “’pregnancy prediction’ score. More important, [they] could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.”

Unfortunately, this sometimes backfired: not by being wrong, but by being more right than the humans. One teenage girl’s father reacted with rage to the coupons his daughter was getting. She had to tell him she was pregnant — not a confession she’d planned.

Target is in retail, not the revelation business. This wouldn’t do. So, a store statistician explains, they got cannier — “started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random.”

We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. … That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons.

“So the Target philosophy towards expecting parents is similar to the first date philosophy?” Forbes comments. “Even if you’ve fully stalked the person on Facebook and Google beforehand, pretend like you know less than you do so as not to creep the person out.”

We’re all on blind dates with the information buyers these days. And stalking, far from being criminal, is studied in business school.

... is you.

4 thoughts on “The drone at the window and your pregnant credit card: Notes on privacy

  1. Wow, I didn’t realize that retailers were pursuing — and achieving — Facebook-level precision in their ad targeting. It’s a sign that there are way too many products in the world when people’s purchase histories can tell so much about their demographic profiles. Doesn’t make me feel particularly optimistic about the future of capitalism in the age of social networking.

  2. The future of capitalism seems increasingly secure – marketers know what I want before I know that I want it. Manipulation blending in to the background to appear random – that’s frightening. It doesn’t even worry me that much that Target does it. If Target is doing it, I’m sure the government is and we just aren’t aware. Already the federal government has the power to get a list of books you’ve purchased or borrowed and the librarian/Amazon/Barens&Noble are prohibited from telling you the government has asked.

  3. Got to your piece via a ping back. I’m glad my blog post helped prompt this thoughtful piece – I very much enjoyed the read (as well as reading through your bio). I’m not sure I was waxing enthusiastically in my post – the intent was to be cautionary and to suggest that it isn’t going to just be governments driving this process.

    Cheers,
    Dave

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