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8 Creepy Spy Technologies That Can Be Hitched to Your Neighborhood Drones

America's cities may soon be swarming with surveillance drones equipped with high-tech snooping tools.
 
 
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Last fall, the Montgomery County Sheriff's department  got together for a photo op showing off a new unmanned surveillance craft. The $300,000 drone did not have an auspicious debut. Minutes after take-off, the UAV lost touch with the control console and plummeted to earth, crashing into the police officers assembled for the launch. No one was hurt, because police were hanging out in their armored car ("the Bearcat") another warzone weapon that has crept into the arsenals of local cops around the country (the Bearcat came out alright). 

Civilians, however, don't ride around in armored vehicles Mad-Max-style, so the  FAA has been charged by Congress to come up with safety regulations that would prevent drones from raining from the sky or colliding with airplanes. 

Meanwhile, there are no such plans underway to build legal barriers against the privacy erosions portended by cheap, versatile, unmanned aircraft -- drones small enough to fly around your window or large enough to hover far above the earth, out of site but watching over miles of land.

Police enthusiasm for  military weaponry (and a  drone industry salivating over a new market) is driving a rapid spread of domestic law enforcement drones, which are already being used by border agents. In February, the FAA  was directed to lay out guidelines opening up airspace for commercial and civil drones by 2015, at the latest; the technology is likely to be embraced by property companies, paparazzi, and totally random people who want to spy on others. (There are also many positive uses, like helping track wildfires or oil spills.)

Privacy advocates are duly freaked out. "All the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life—a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States," the ACLU's Jay Stanley and Catherine Crump wrote in a report  released earlier this year (PDF). A long tradition of government inaction in response to the privacy threats unleashed by new technologies does not auger well for Americans' expectations of privacy.

Drones may be  so intrusive that M. Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics for the Center for Internet and Society, thinks they might finally shake Americans out of their complacency about the relentless attacks on their privacy in the decade after 9/11.

"People would  feel observed, regardless of how or whether the information was actually used. The resulting backlash could force us to reexamine not merely the use of drones to observe, but the doctrines that today permit this use," Calo  writes in the Stanford Law Review.

AlterNet has assembled an incomplete list of spy technologies and surveillance programs, military and civilian, that can take to the air on drones. Here are eight things that could potentially be strapped to the UAV that may be flying over your head in the next few years. 

1. WiFi and phone hacking: The Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform (WASP) can break into WiFi networks and hack cell phones,  according to  Forbes. Jerry-rigged from an old army drone by two former military network security analysts, the spy plane comes with a Linux system and dictionary to help generate password-cracking words. 

Plus, its antennas mimic cell phone towers, allowing the machine, allegedly, to tap into cell phone conversations and access text messages. "Ideally, the target won’t even know he’s being spied on,” one of the designers told  Forbes.

Their intentions are not to get a head start on unleashing a dystopian future where no conversation is private, but to show how easily breached communication networks are. Point taken. 

2. NYPD sensor that sees through clothes: The NYPD, which is not known for its cautious approach to the use of surveillance, announced recently that it was perfecting a sensor that uses radiation to reveal  weapons hidden under a person's clothes. The technology can clearly be put to good use, diffusing dangerous situations and saving lives. But as NYCLU director Donna Lieberman said in  a statement, it would be helpful if the NYPD shared what the surveillance can do and its intentions for using it:  “We have no idea how this technology works, if it is effective, and what its error rate is. If the NYPD is moving forward with this, the public needs more information about this technology, how it works and the dangers it presents."  (The NYPD is also not hailed for its transparency.)

 
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