Affordable drones are giving us a new—perhaps temporary—vantage on the world
When a drone looks at a thing, that thing has a way of looking like a target. People become silhouettes at a shooting range. Buildings look vulnerable, their roofs helplessly exposed and defenseless. Most colors disappear, and the remaining blacks, whites and greys evacuate the scene of all human meaning. What we see becomes data: body counts, damage reports, strategic value.
In these photos, shot as part of an ongoing series, Belgian photographer Tomas van Houtryve looks at America through the eyes of a drone, a small quadcopter he bought online and equipped with a high-resolution camera. “A drone seems particularly appropriate because it’s increasingly how America views the rest of the world,” he says. “I wanted to turn things around. What do we look like from a drone’s-eye view? Suspicious? Prosperous? Free and happy?” Every age brings with it new technology for looking at the world. Van Houtryve has embraced the technology of ours.
Drones are becoming an increasingly common sight in our domestic airspace. Pilots have started spotting them from airliners: the FAA reports up to 40 cases a month in which drones are seen exceeding the legal ceiling of 400 feet. As they get cheaper, more popular and more plentiful—one online community for enthusiasts, DIY Drones, has over 60,000 members—they are bringing with them a host of unanswered questions, and the White House is scrambling to bring regulatory order to the aerial chaos. In December, the Federal Aviation Administration delayed its long-awaited guidelines on drone flights, initially due next year, until 2017. The questions are about safety, but also about privacy: we’re a lot more comfortable looking through drones than suffering their all-seeing, all-judging gaze.
From this godlike point of view, teenagers playing lacrosse on a field look like lunar shadows of themselves. A housing development in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., takes on an abstract geometric beauty. Everything everywhere looks silent and calm, still and waiting. Even scenes of economic and ecological chaos take on their own serene perfection. In California’s Central Valley, van Houtryve found order in rows of houseboats moored in a reservoir. Rings on the shoreline show how profoundly the water level has been reduced by months of drought.
That same order is echoed by rows of RVs parked near an Amazon fulfillment center near Reno, Nev. (coincidentally, Amazon is where van Houtryve bought his drone). Migrant workers flock there in RVs for the extra jobs that materialize during the holiday season and then, like the water in that California reservoir, evaporate into thin air. In a strange way, the pitilessness in the drone’s stare inspires its opposite in human eyes: empathy.
Myles Little, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.
(WASHINGTON) — The government says it is granting four companies permission to use drones for aerial surveillance, construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspections, bringing the total number of companies granted permits for commercial operations to 13.
The drones weigh less than 55 pounds and the firms have said they will they will keep the unmanned aircraft within line of sight of the operator.
Previously the only permits the Federal Aviation Administrational Aviation had issued were to two oil companies in Alaska and five aerial photography companies associated with television and film production.
The FAA said it has received 167 requests for exemptions from commercial entities.
The agency is under pressure from Congress to speed access to the U.S. skies for companies that want to operate drones.
By Stan McChrystal in the Washington Post
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Jacobin
By Samantha Ames in The Advocate
By Nicholas Generous, Geoffrey Fairchild, Alina Deshpande, Sara Y. Del Valle and Reid Priedhorsky at PLOS Computational Biology
By Michael Eisner and Marc Freedman in the Huffington Post
The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.
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Devices on planes said to simulate cell towers and trick phones into reporting data
The Justice Department is using equipment on board aircraft that simulates cell towers to collect data from criminal suspects’ cell phones, according to a report Thursday.
The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources familiar with the operations, reports that a program operating under the U.S. Marshals Service is said to use small aircraft flying from five different airports around the country. Devices aboard those planes called “dirtboxes” essentially trick the suspects’ cellphones into thinking they’re connecting to legitimate cell towers from big wireless carriers like Verizon or AT&T, allowing the feds to scoop up personal data and location information about those targeted.
However, the report details those devices could be gathering data from “tens of thousands” of Americans in a single flight, meaning nonsuspects are likely to be included in the data roundup. The new report could shed some light on earlier reports of mysterious “phony” cell towers that security researchers have found around the country.
Read more at the Wall Street Journal
An internal audit raised concerns over mail-tracking oversight
The United States Postal Service (USPS) approved some 50,000 requests from law enforcement officials and its own inspectors in 2013 to track Americans’ mail for security and criminal purposes, a New York Times report revealed Monday.
An internal 2014 USPS audit cited by the Times suggested that the protocol for approving the tracking of U.S. mail suffered from a number of flaws, as some requests to track mail were approved without adequate oversight while others didn’t receive immediate attention.
“Insufficient controls could hinder the Postal Inspection Service’s ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail and harm the Postal Service’s brand,” the report found.
For hours, my almost-4-year-old gets lost in play in his room. Would he act the same if he knew I was watching?
I’m acutely aware of how much time I spend fretting about my kids. I’m an admittedly nervous mother – all hell breaks loose in my house if someone dares to give my toddler a whole grape or a hot dog that hasn’t been halved down the middle. Stories about choking or children who go to bed and never wake up haunt me. I sometimes wonder if all parents watch for the rise and fall of their child’s chest when they peek in on them at night. I also wonder if that is something I will ever stop doing.
If we didn’t raise our first child in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn where we were forced to share a bedroom, I probably would have invested in one of those video monitors that have become so popular among parents like me – the ones who worry. I always assumed that’s who those monitors were for, but a New York Times Motherlode blog post opened my eyes to another type of parent who likes to use them–the observer. In the piece, Thanks to Video Monitors, Parents are the New Big Brother, several admitted to holding on to infant video monitors once their children were well into toddlerhood, because they enjoy peeking into their kids’ world:
Beyond the peace of mind and potential safety benefits that come from extended use of video monitors, many moms and dads would agree that “it’s more fascinating” to watch your child via a video monitor than to listen to him or her via audio, said Alan Fields, co-author of the baby gear review book “Baby Bargains” and the “Best Baby Monitors” online guide. The early audio monitor was a way for parents to hear remotely when their baby woke up, but video monitors let parents see what their baby is doing when they’re not there.
I never really thought about the concept of toddlers and privacy, but if I stop and examine how I feel about it, is it ridiculous to say that I believe they should be afforded some? I think all parents love to peek in on their sleeping children or sneak up and look in unnoticed when their child is lost in play. I certainly understand why parents would be drawn to making a habit of it by ogling a video monitor nightly. But there are things I remember about my childhood – and a lot of my best memories were solitary ones.
I was a private child. I loved playing alone. I see my almost-4-year-old doing the same thing I did as a child—getting lost in play in his room for hours. Would he act the same if he knew I was watching? I don’t think so. I happen to know he is not too young to crave privacy; for one, he’s very adamant about having the door closed when he uses the bathroom. Sometimes when I walk into his room when he’s playing he tells me to “Leave, Mommy.” One child in the New York Times article admits to knowing when she is being watched; her mother hushes her through the monitor when she and her brother play too loudly. “On a recent Saturday morning, Abby pointed out the camera in her room. ‘It’s used for Mommy and Daddy, so if I bang, they are going to talk through the camera,’ she said.”
We’re observing our children more than ever before. We may be raising children to believe – from a very early age – that they’re not entitled to their own space and privacy. As they grow, we hammer this idea into their heads a little more, through a device most of them beg for: the cell phone. Everyone’s favorite accessory isn’t necessarily surveillance, but it is performing the same function—enabling parents to track and observe that their children are okay, without the need for blind trust.
Recently, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio vowed to end the cell phone ban in schools to a collective sigh of relief from parents everywhere. He admitted that his own son violates the ban and called it a “safety issue” for parents to be able to keep track of their kids. Raising children in the city is potentially worrisome, but is having a direct line to your child at all times really a safety issue? When I was growing up and a parent had to reach a child in an emergency, they called the school. Perhaps we have more emergencies now, or are we just so used to being on top of our children that we truly believe they can’t make it to school and back without being able to reach us, immediately?
In our attempts to protect our children, we may be crippling them instead. Learning how to move through the world without a direct line to your parents is an important skill for older children. We’re demanding our kids be reachable at all times for their own good. Or is it for our own good? “On the one hand, being able to reach our children at all times gives parents a sense of security and it gives kids a sense of security,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Princeton, New Jersey psychologist and professor for the new video series, Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids. “But I think also that it can be an easy out – to immediately call a parent if they struggle. If we leap in too quickly to solve problems that our kids can figure out on their own, we steal their opportunity to develop important coping skills.” What’s more we let them think they need our help. “Of course we want to take reasonable steps for safety,” says Kennedy-Moore, “but we also want to give our children the message that ‘I have faith in you. I believe that you can handle this.’ That’s a very empowering message.”
In addition to putting kids in a position to constantly outsource problem-solving to their parents, cell phones are effectively putting our children on call – all day long. Imagine forfeiting the freedom you had as a child, to leave the house and be absolutely free of your parents until you returned. One mother who grew tired of having her calls seemingly ignored, even went as far as creating an app that will shut down your child’s phone if he doesn’t answer it. Does that sound like someone who is worried about safety, or control? I’d say the latter.
Tonya Rooney, an Early Childhood Education lecturer at Australian Catholic University, has done a lot of research on the repercussions surveillance has on children. In her research article, Trusting children: How do surveillance technologies alter a child’s experience of trust, risk and responsibility, she concludes:
Without a surveillance gaze, children have the opportunity to be trusted, to learn how to trust others, and perhaps to show others they can live up to this trust. Once the surveillance is in place, this opportunity is greatly reduced… if surveillance is applied as a response to fear rather than a more balanced response to any actual risks involved, then arguably both adults and children become reactive agents, contributing to a cycle of suspicion and anxiety, robbing childhood of valuable opportunities to trust and be trusted.
I stomped through Europe in my early twenties without a cell phone and with only a promise to call my mother once a week. If I observe my child secretly in the days of his young life and hand him a cell phone to track him as soon as he’s old enough to leave the house on his own, am I setting him up for the same independence I enjoyed? Will he be able to handle it? It’s a trajectory that we have the power to stop if we realize it may not be in the best interest of our children to raise them to think it’s okay to be watched and tracked.
But, our kids will probably never know the freedom we did, so they won’t know what they’re missing.
New Zealand prime minister denies his government helped U.S. collect data on private citizens by gaining access to undersea cables
Documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden purport to show U.S. and New Zealand officials have collected Internet data via underwater cables that connect New Zealand, Australia and North America.
The documents, reported by The Intercept and the Sydney Morning Herald, are said to show the program, called “Speargun,” had initially been implemented in 2012 or early 2013 by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of New Zealand.
The GCSB was alleged to have gained covert access to a Trans-Pacific undersea cable network through which data is transmitted between Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Hawaii, to allow the NSA to harvest data.
Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key denies that the GCSB has participated in mass surveillance of citizens, though he reportedly would not discuss the existence of the program New Zealand reportedly used to conduct surveillance.
Snowden said in an interview with The Intercept website, which first reported the program’s existence, that the Prime Minister was fully aware of the program. “The Prime Minister’s claim to the public, that ‘there is no and there never has been any mass surveillance’, is false,” Snowden said. “The GCSB, whose operations he is responsible for, is directly involved in the untargeted, bulk interception and algorithmic analysis of private communications sent via internet, satellite, radio, and phone networks.”
Yahoo tried to fight the government's requests for user information
The U.S. government threatened Yahoo with a $250,000-a-day fine in 2008 if the tech company did not comply with requests for user information, according to roughly 1,500 pages of newly released legal documents.
“We refused to comply with what we viewed as unconstitutional and overbroad surveillance and challenged the U.S. Government’s authority,” Yahoo’s General Counsel Ron Bell wrote in a Tumblr post published on Thursday. “The released documents underscore how we had to fight every step of the way to challenge the U.S. Government’s surveillance efforts.”
Yahoo’s multiple challenges against the government were unsuccessful however, and the company started providing user data to PRISM, the controversial National Security Agency program that was shut down in 2011 and revealed to the public by Edward Snowden in 2013, the Washington Post reports.
Yahoo felt these government requests, which asked for data about whom and when users outside of the U.S. emailed (though not email content itself), bypassed required court reviews of each surveillance target.
Federal Judge William C. Bryson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review ordered the unsealing of the documents as part of a move to declassify cases and documents that established the legal basis for the PRISM program.
For some drivers, the fear of scams, overcharging, and government surveillance still outweighs the benefits of E-ZPass. They pay cash because they like talking to toll takers, too.
That question was posted at a Yelp forum … in 2007. The puzzled, frustrated individual asking the question pointed out that E-ZPass is “free and it saves so much time. It also reduces traffic for everyone. Someone, please please please tell me why everyone doesn’t have it?”
And yet, here we are, seven years later, with one of the year’s busiest road trip weekends upon us, and there will still be drivers backed up in gigantic lines at toll booths to pay cash—clogging up traffic in general while they’re at it—because they don’t have E-ZPass accounts. If anything, it’s even more difficult now to get around by car without an E-ZPass or another toll-paying transponder from a corresponding program, what with the expansion of cashless toll roads across the country. So what gives?
The Boston Globe recently reached out and talked with some “conscientious objectors” who refused to get on board with E-ZPass. Their reasons for sticking with cash and enduring longer-than-necessary waits at toll booths include:
They are concerned about government surveillance. They are apprehensive about erroneous fees charged automatically to their credit cards. They disapprove of eliminating good jobs held by toll takers for decades. And they would miss the small social exchanges with toll takers, the face-to-face contact, as they pass over their fare.
Is there validity to these concerns? Well, sure, there’s some. One of the big reasons states are pushing for cashless tolls is because doing so allows them to cut costs by getting rid of toll taker salaries. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to take a stance to help protect these workers and human contact in general in an increasingly cold, impersonal, automated world.
As for privacy and mistakes that could cost account holders money, there’s some evidence that they too are of legitimate concern. Occasionally, credit card errors or payment mix-ups result in huge bills for account holders. In one notorious case in the Seattle area, a couple with a Good to Go pass—a program that’s similar to E-ZPass—got hit with a bill for $8,346.82 because when their bank merged, the pass account was never updated, and tolls went unpaid for months. (The fines for nonpayment far surpassed the actual tolls themselves.)
By far, though, the biggest thing motivating E-ZPass refuseniks is the privacy issue. Bloggers have raised alarm bells by spreading word that the police and other authorities track E-ZPass travels all over metropolitan areas, not just at spots where tolls are paid. This summer, states such as Pennsylvania warned that phishing scammers somehow got hold of the email addresses of E-ZPass holders and were trying to get more personal information via fraudulent messages. The FTC later issued a national warning about phishing scams related to E-ZPass.
“Do I really want the government to keep a paper record on my comings and goings? No,” one E-ZPass-refusing driver told the Boston Globe. “It’s a slippery slope. Where does it end? I don’t like the trend.”
Still, considering the recent history of NSA surveillance programs and the news that a billion passwords were stolen by Russian hackers, it’s not like dumping your E-ZPass account is suddenly going to protect you from all forms of identity theft and other scams. In fact, privacy and Internet security experts generally say that everyday transactions like credit card payments and logging into email and other online accounts should be of far higher concern than using an E-ZPass.
None of this negates the need to be vigilant about protecting one’s personal information, of course. All in all, most people understand the individual’s fear of hackers and discomfort with government surveillance. Most people respect the individual’s right to make a stand about protecting privacy and workers’ jobs. It’s just that the vast majority of drivers would prefer that people wouldn’t be making this stand during Labor Day Weekend, when doing so makes already crowded roads and annoying tolls even more of a pain.