When it’s (not) okay to spy by drone

March 31, 2021, 1:35 PM UTC

One of the core liberties protected in the U.S. Constitution is, as the Fourth Amendment so eloquently puts it, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” But new technology is always raising questions about just what qualifies as a search that should require a warrant.

Today, the question will fly by, as you’ll see.

The definition of a “search” is often in motion: In a famous 1960s case, Katz v U.S., the Supreme Court ruled that recording phone calls required a warrant. But in the 1970s, in one of the first great metadata cases, the high court said recording the numbers dialed from a suspect’s phone was not a search. Getting somewhat tech-ier, 20 years ago, the court found that using a thermal imaging camera to try and catch an indoor marijuana farm required a warrant. More recently, in U.S. v Jones, the Supremes ruled that attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car and tracking its movements for several weeks also constituted a search. And then in 2018, in Carpenter v U.S., the court found that obtaining cellphone location data from a suspect’s wireless carrier required a warrant.

This month, an appeals court in Michigan faced a novel question, one that hasn’t gotten to the Supreme Court yet. Long Lake Township, near vacation destination Traverse City, had a problem with a couple of residents who were collecting junked cars and other salvaged items in their yard seemingly in violation of the local zoning rules. So the township hired Zero Gravity Aerial, a drone photo service, to conduct a few fly-bys and gather evidence of the lawn debris. But the couple sued, arguing that the drone flights constituted an illegal search of their premises.

Lawyers for the township thought they had an open and shut case, since the Supreme Court allowed observations from a police helicopter without a warant in the 1989 case Florida v Riley. But one of the high court’s rules of thumb in Fourth Amendment cases is to determine what level of privacy a person can reasonably expect. And to the three-judge panel in the Michigan court, drone flights were something wholly different.

“Drones are qualitatively different from airplanes and helicopters: they are vastly smaller and operate within little more than a football field’s distance from the ground,” Judge Kathleen Jansen wrote in the decision. “A drone is therefore necessarily more intrusive into a person’s private space than would be an airplane overflight…Furthermore, given their maneuverability, speed, and stealth, drones are—like thermal imaging devices—capable of drastically exceeding the kind of human limitations that would have been expected by the Framers not just in degree, but in kind.”

Equally or even more privacy-invading technologies are bubbling up too: Automated license plate readers, walk-by DNA sniffers, augmented reality glasses tied to facial recognition scanning, it’s all coming. Let’s hope the court is ready.

Aaron Pressman


See me as I am. Microsoft's LinkedIn is adding a dedicated field for gender pronouns and several new job titles, including “stay-at-home mom,” to allow full-time parents and other caretakers to provide more accurate descriptions of their time away from the paid labor force. But the new job descriptions are only a "stopgap solution," Bef Ayenew, director of engineering, tells Fortune. More comprehensive changes that will allow greater flexibility in resume listings are coming. Separately, the company is also developing an audio meeting feature similar to Clubhouse. And Facebook is giving everyone something they really want: a chronological feed that shows what your friends actually posted, not just what some algo favored.

Send in the deep fakes. As we await news of the unionization vote from Amazon's Alabama warehouse workers, news of a slightly weirder controversy around the company has come. Some odd, newly created and seemingly fake Twitter accounts popped up defending Amazon's working conditions pretty aggressively while citing "@AmazonFC," which is the tag real Amazon employees used in a pro-company tweeting campaign a few years ago. Twitter suspended some of the accounts but told Vice tweeting privileges would be restored if the accounts made clear that they were parodies.

Projection junction. In gadget land, Snap is reportedly working on augmented reality glasses. The update to its Spectacles will allow the wearer to see effects from Snap's lenses superimposed on the real world, The Information reports. Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has a new folding phone dubbed the Mi Mix Fold. An 8-inch inner panel folds in half when the device is closed, with a 6.5-inch display available on the outside. It starts shipping in China on April 16 at a price equal to about $1,500.

Compute that for me one more time. The processor at the core (ha, ha) of most smartphones and an increasing number of laptops is getting an overhaul. U.K. chip designer Arm says its new Armv9 architecture, its first big update in a decade, will improve security and bolster A.I. computations. Meanwhile, actual testing of Intel's latest 11th-generation desktop CPU line up, known as Rocket Lake-S, was less than impressive. On most benchmarks, Rocket Lake-S lagged last year's Intel Comet Lake processors, according to Ars Technica.

Chalkdust torture. On Wall Street, online learning platform Coursera is going public, pricing almost 16 million shares for $33 each on Tuesday night. The stock, with the symbol COUR, will open for trading later today. Also, dominant photo rights licenser Getty Images is buying Unsplash, a crowd-sourced alternative image platform, for an undisclosed price. But fear no draconian changes, as Unsplash CEO Mikael Cho says he "learned about the level of respect they had for the Unsplash community and the rights of creators to choose how and where their imagery is made available." Sure, and about all those free downloads...


Connected cars may give you great directions, but they also provide new tracking capabilities for car makers. Whether or not that counts as a "search," more connected devices will be surreptitiously collecting even more of your data, warns Jonathan Corbet, executive editor at Linux Weekly News.

Can there be any doubt that the purveyors of other connected devices will be attracted by network connectivity that does not require the customer's cooperation? The sorts of data streams that we see from cars now will soon be generated by household appliances, cameras, medical implants, lawn mowers, sex toys, water faucets, articles of clothing, and many other things that product designers are surely thinking of right now. These streams will not flow over networks we control; short of living in a Faraday cage, there will be little we can do about them. We have not begun to see the kinds of spectacular security issues, including surveillance, stalking, fraud, and repression, that will result.


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