Are Delivery Drones One of the Greatest Threats to Privacy Americans have Ever Seen?

Pretty soon, our skies everywhere could very well be filled with drones from all the major delivery and online companies: USPS, UPS, FedEx, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, and Walmart. Package air delivery may happen so quickly we will not know what hit us. Many of us may even like the convenience of getting medicine delivered in a pinch. Many more of us, though, might see drone delivery as just one more step towards a dystopian nightmare of total Big Brother.

Will Drone Delivery Take over the Skies?

Late last month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency that regulates drones, gave the green light for the biggest online shopping company in the world to deliver packages by air everywhere. Amazon Prime Air now joins the ranks of UPS and Alphabet’s (formerly Google) Wing to operate broadly to safely and efficiently deliver packages to customers via the air. Amazon VP overseeing Prime Air David Carbon recently said:

“This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world.”

Not to be outdone, Walmart will now try to rival Amazon Prime with a similar subscription service called Walmart+, which began this week. Also, in the last two weeks, the Arkansas-based company has announced two drone delivery partnerships.

The first is a pilot project with an end-to-end delivery firm called Flytrex. The program began earlier this month in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The plan is to deliver groceries and household products with cloud-controlled drones picking up and dropping off select items.

The second partnership, announced this week, will see the company team up with Zipline to test drone delivery beginning early next year and will first deliver health and wellness products with the potential to expand to general merchandise. Zipline operates the world’s largest drone delivery network and is best known for its critical medical supply deliveries in Africa. In 2018, I wrote about The Future of Delivery, and Zipline was one of the featured companies.

Other delivery companies also want to get in on the drone action. Walgreens and FedEx have conducted limited air deliveries in Virginia since last year. UPS works with a Raleigh, NC hospital delivering medical supplies. Alphabet (formerly Google) Wing has been testing deliveries in Australia since 2014 and, as of December 2019, had already undertaken over 70,000 test flights with 3,000 successful deliveries.

But what about Privacy?

In his September 3rd Massprivatel blog post, Joe Cadillic wrote that he feels Americans have never seen a greater threat to privacy than drone delivery. When delivering packages, voyeuristic pilots on the ground can easily spy on folks in their homes, their backyards, and in their neighborhoods.

Joe points out two other reasons why he thinks drone delivery is problematic:

Once the public accepts private delivery drones flying over their homes, law enforcement drones might quickly follow. Local, state, and federal police agencies could use the excuse of public safety and equip their drones with facial recognition, thermal imaging, and license plate readers.

The second reason also has to do with law enforcement. How long will it take a police enforcement agency to ask a court to subpoena a private delivery company for its drone footage? Would backdoor access to delivery drone footage be granted automatically to police agencies? Just like Amazon’s Ring doorbell surveillance service, delivery companies will likely be morally bound to report suspicious or illegal activity to law enforcement agencies. Then, drone delivery pilots become ad hoc agents of the state.

Joe points out in his blog post:

It has become commonplace for the mass media to pander to Big Tech. The Los Angeles Times went out of its way to praise drone deliveries. 

“Amazon and other companies hoping to revolutionize the retail world with drones have made significant strides in recent years. They’ve invented new devices and shown, at least on a limited scale, that they’re capable of flying relatively long distances and carrying the payloads necessary for packages.”

One thing became clear after reading the approximately ten news articles about the FAA approving Amazon’s drone delivery fleet. Not a single news article would address the giant elephant in the room: Privacy.

In April 2020, The posted an article about whether delivery drones would be the next tech privacy violation. I found this paragraph particularly chilling:

“As these unmanned aerial vehicles take delivery flight, they’ll also be recording photos and collecting data throughout neighborhoods across the country. Homeowners will have little say over whether a drone flies above their home airspace, and also can’t control the video and data these devices record as they zoom by.”

In the same article, posted results to a survey of 1,500 Americans on drone delivery.

  • 88 percent of those surveyed don’t think drones should record on private property and
  • 83 percent don’t think private companies should use data collected for marketing and advertising purposes.

The FAA currently has no regulations to restrict captured drone data. Who owns the airspace above your property is still up in the air. It will become a central question for courts, local city/town/village councils, county commissions, state legislatures, and federal lawmakers. Messing with any drone, even flying over your property, is considered a federal crime since drones are considered aircraft under US law.

In the meantime, these flying machines will likely invade your space, whether you want them to or not.

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