Expectations of privacy – September 2013

I’m sure when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone there were a lot of folks that marveled at the changes the device was making to their way of life.  Mr. Bell’s invention changed the way people communicated that continues its march today.  Another change came about with the development of the internet.  Not only can people share information in ways not even dreamed about by our grandparents, but it has opened up a whole new world for entrepreneurs.  Information sharing has allowed someone with reasonable writing skills to develop and provide online news services.  This information sharing bypasses the old system of newspapers, radio and television reporters who went to the scene, gathered some details and went back to an office to type up what they found out.

In time, many of these older systems of gathering news fell into a mold that caused many people to doubt their objectivity.  However, since they were the only game in town, there wasn’t much you could do about it.  I remember going to meetings or hearings where reporters were covering the event.  At a break I would watch as they descended on the one environmental representative to get more information from that person and totally ignored the 25 non-environmental folks who had testified.  The next day’s story was totally unrecognizable to the meeting I had attended.  Now, however, I can put my message out on the internet and if I’m a popular person there will be more people read my musings or reporting than will read newspapers.  That’s the upside of the internet.  The downside is that I can put out irresponsible mutterings with very little to no evidence of truth and there is no way for anyone, other than the few who may have been at the meeting, to know the report is inaccurate.

And it’s not just limited to writing.  With today’s technology, I can take a picture of something, edit it into portraying something else and put it out as if it were “real.”  If I happen to have a video camera, I can do virtually the same thing with some clever editing.  Something we’ve learned from some of the major television news programs.

The point of all this is that everything can have an upside and a downside; most of which depends on the ethical leanings of the person or persons using the technology.

Recently, a former legislator and I had a conversation about another upside/downside technology which is developing.  It’s the use of remote control aircraft, or drones, with surveillance capabilities.  Most of us are probably supportive of the use of these types of devices for the military or law enforcement tracking down a missing person or illegal border crossings.  However, the technology has evolved to the point where anyone with a few dollars and some rudimentary training can now send a drone over an area to see from above what cannot be seen from the ground. 

There are articles in agriculture publications about people using drones with remote sensing devices to catch stress indicators of drought or insect infestations in crops.  There are proposals to use drones to aerial apply pesticides.  We’ve learned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now using drones to fly over areas to see if folks are complying with the various environmental laws.  Some animal welfare groups have announced they plan to fly drones over livestock operations to see if animals are being mistreated.  

So while there are some tremendous advantages to remote aerial devices, what we as a society have as a concept of “private” may no longer be true.  As a society, what are our expectations of privacy?  If we live in a city, chances are, if we are outside of our house, then someone somewhere may be using video surveillance cameras to watch our activities.  However, now technology provides surveillance opportunities to enter our backyards or property, when someone sends a drone over our back yard and watches us playing with Fido, or our kids.  What should we as a society do to regulate such activity?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been charged by Congress to come up with some “rules of the game” for remote aerial devices.  However, some states are looking to do something even before federal action.  Idaho passed a law in their last legislative session regulating how drones are used.  Perhaps Wyoming’s legislature should look into such laws as well.  But what exactly should we legislate?

In a free society, do we require law enforcement to have some reasonable degree of evidence before they send a drone over your back yard fence to see what you happen to be doing?  I may be laying out in my Speedo or I may be growing medical marijuana.  What about the activist group who feels they should be able to monitor your activities on your ranch to see if you could be mistreating your animals?  What about a federal or state agency enforcing environmental regulation?

And finally if we are concerned about low elevation surveillance, what about the manned aerial surveillance or the unmanned satellite surveillance which can pick up vehicles driving along a county road? 

Defining our expectations of privacy in the era of remote sensing devices will certainly provide a challenge for us in the next few years.  However, the challenge to protect people’s privacy as we legislate the “rules of the game” will ultimately help us define our civil liberties.

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President

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