John Laird: Technology 2012: Smile! You’re on Government Camera

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Every technological advance -- gunpowder, cameras, cars, airplanes, the Internet -- has brought both benefits and detriments. Combining two technologies seems to magnify the best and the worse. A car with a GPS increases navigation, but driving and texting can be deadly.

So it is with the convergence of aviation and photography.

The thought of some terrorist crawling out of his cave and into a satellite’s viewfinder truly warms my heart. So does the prospect of him squinting up toward a missile-laden drone. And many of us are proud that nonmilitary drone technology is advanced in our own Pacific Northwest. Manufacturer Insitu is based in Bingen and has offices around the area. We’re comforted to know that drones can enhance weather research and assist in search-and-rescue missions.

But when the focus of high-tech wizardry becomes an American who neither wants nor needs to be surveilled, everything changes. The difference between a drone deployed against the Taliban and one deployed against an unwitting American is like the difference between a squirrel two feet outside your screen door and a squirrel two feet inside that door. We love and coo at the first, but we panic wildly in resistance to the second.

Recently the Federal Aviation Administration released a list of 63 organizations in 20 states that were authorized to fly domestic drones. The closest of those to Clark County is the Seattle Police Department. Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh told The Seattle Times: “We will be careful to have policy in place to make sure that, one, the system isn’t abused, and when it is deployed, it’s used for the lawful purpose it’s intended.”

Sounds fine, sir, but the skeptic in me wonders: When law officers are joysticking a drone back to its base after finding a lost child or checking out a riot, what’s to stop them from flying over my backyard to see if my lawn needs mowing? Or flying over a golf course to verify that the par I just wrote down wasn’t actually a bogey?

(A spokesperson at the Vancouver Police Department says the department does not use drones.)

Elsewhere in the field of photography, technology brings the ability to detect heat sources inside buildings. That’s great when firefighters need to know what or who is inside a burning building. But it’s not so great when my government wants to know if I’m in my kitchen or the dining room.

Our privacy is nonpartisan

In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police had no right to use a thermal imaging device without a warrant to spy on the home of Danny Lee Kyllo in Florence, Ore. Because of that unreasonable search, Kyllo’s conviction for growing marijuana was reversed. It’s good to see the Fourth Amendment upheld, and it’s good to know that liberal and conservative justices agreed on the ruling. After all, our right to privacy is not a partisan issue.

But the ruling is troubling in other areas. It was a 5-4 decision; we should worry that four justices rejected Kyllo’s privacy rights. Also, this happened 11 years ago. We should worry about how technology has advanced (and how courts have evolved) since 2001.

Privacy rights ought to prevail inside our computers, too. But last Thursday, 42 Democrats joined 206 Republicans as the House passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. The Associated Press reports the bill “would encourage companies and the federal government to share information collected on the Internet to help prevent electronic attacks from cyber criminals, foreign governments and terrorists. … In the private sector, corporations could alert the government and provide data that could stop an attack intended to disrupt the country’s water supply or take down the banking system.”

President Obama has threatened a veto. The Senate is working on its own version. Both Republicans and Democrats are weighing in passionately on both sides of this issue.

I’m glad they’re cracking down on terrorists. But I wonder if the squirrel has crept indoors, and if my government believes the best response is to shoot up my house.