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Drone World

Winter 2013-14

by Paul Sheprow

Drone World imaginary illustration

In April 2013, a proposal for a project called “Drone Shield” was posted on Indiegogo, a crowd-funding website similar to Kickstarter. The project hoped to raise $3,500 to create “a low-cost, easy-to-use device that alerts you to nearby drones.”

The principles behind the project are simple: A continuously operating microphone passes everything it hears through the unit’s processor, which checks elements of the audio against a database of drone sound signatures. If a match is detected, the user is notified by text, email or flashing light.

Drone Shield’s creator, John Franklin, already had a prototype of the software functioning on his laptop. Franklin, an affable aerospace engineer who works in the Washington, D.C., area, says that the campaign’s object was to determine whether there would even be interest in such a device.

Just days after posting, Franklin issued a follow-up message on the Indiegogo page: “We’ve met over twice our initial funding goal with 32 days left in the campaign! This means we’re getting started a month ahead of schedule. A set of Pis has just arrived.”

A “Pi” is the popular Raspberry Pi computing platform, which is the size of a deck of cards, retails for just $35 and leverages the favorable balance of processing muscle and low power consumption of the ARM microprocessors used in most smartphones and tablets.

“It’s a challenge,” Franklin says of getting the technology to perform in the real world. “We’re on the right track, but we really have to focus on the critical task of delivering functionality.” Still, recent advances in computing have shifted that task from the realm of the impossible to the merely difficult. “We reviewed some of the literature in acoustic technology, in vehicle ID,” says Franklin. “These are old technologies that were used to tell whether a tank was trundling by. It’s all in the open literature, but they were looking for really low-frequency noises, which was good because processing power wasn’t able to sample at much higher frequencies. We’re now looking for something that produces a high-pitched whine, and that’s not as much of a problem considering contemporary hardware.”

***

Since the inception of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the drone has evolved into a Janus-like figure, simultaneously embodying human ingenuity at its most tantalizing—a spindly robot whizzes over an oil pipeline running across an inaccessible tundra, or a biologist teases an unobtrusive, whirring proxy up into the dense rainforest canopy—and its most ominous: an insectoid device no larger than a hummingbird hovers outside a lit apartment window, or 20,000 feet above a slumbering village an anodyne concatenation of airfoils and antennae mutely releases a missile.

A technology only recently considered outside the battlefield, the potential popularity of drones is now such that the U.S. Congress, through the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, has instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to prepare for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.” The FAA estimates that there could be as many as 30,000 “unmanned aerial vehicles” in use in the United States by the end of the decade. Thirty thousand drones hovering in American airspace by 2020?

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Adam Harvey, a design professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York, recently debuted a line of clothing accessories meant to maintain the wearer’s invisibility from drones, including a hoodie, a burqa and a scarf all designed to mask the heat signature that allows thermal cameras to identify human silhouettes at night.

“Conceptually, these garments align themselves with the rationale behind the traditional hijab and burqa: to act as ‘the veil which separates man or the world from God,’” writes Harvey, in his assessment of the work. His previous projects include a handbag that detects a camera flash and pre-emptively activates its own flash in sync with the offending shutter, thereby blinding the camera, and a rubric for hair-styling and makeup techniques that have a demonstrated ability to foil facial-recognition software.

Drone shields? Anti-drone hijabs? What’s going on here? The government’s willingness to respect the privacy concerns of individuals, and its power to protect them from malicious actors, is widely viewed as ambiguous. Many of the same emergent technologies that have made “asymmetrical warfare” one of the leitmotifs of the 21st century seem to be seeping into the culture at large. The conflict zone where privacy is mediated has shifted to the individual, and the market has responded with a relatively new kind of product: consumer countermeasures.

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The past decade has given birth to a proliferation of similar defensive technologies. There is an expanding market for woven sleeves that act as Faraday cages to prevent the radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags implanted in passports and credit cards from being passively scanned. (Immediately after it was announced in 2006 that U.S. passports would contain RFIDs, articles began to crop up online on how to disable them; Wired suggested a swift blow with a hammer.)

After-market covers for laptop webcams and adhesive plastic sheets for smartphone screens that prevent fingertips from leaving a tell-tale sigil of skin oil over the unlock pattern are popular online purchases.

Personal virtual private network, or VPN, services, similar to those used by governments and the military, are becoming more commonplace. There are active projects to crowd-source maps of every closed-circuit TV camera in London, New York and other cities. Home kits are available online for the same sort of radio-frequency jammers (intended to block unwanted cellphone usage) that are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent remote triggering of IEDs. There’s translucent spray enamel that creates enough glare to render your license plate illegible to cameras at stop lights, and researchers at the National Institute of Informatics in Japan claim to have developed a prototype pair of spectacles that foil the potential facial recognition capabilities of Google Glass and other surreptitious camera systems with a field of near-infrared light-emitting diodes. Even the popular TV-B-Gone, a small keychain that cycles through the most common infrared frequencies signaling televisions to turn off (essentially a universal remote with only a single function) is intended to operate against the ubiquity of compulsory television viewing in public spaces. And not every conscriptee into this new terrain of cultural conflict is so dramatic: Fifteen years ago, who would have predicted the near
ubiquity only recently of the home paper shredder.

***

The Drone Shield database, an ever-expanding index of drone sound signatures along with high-pitched false positives including lawnmowers and other engine noises, will rely on leveraging the same crowd dynamic that funded the initial units. (Currently, Drone Shield only tracks the sound of smaller, low-flying drones. According to John Franklin, the prospect of tackling larger drones like the Predator and Reaper is “far down the road.”) His team plans to implement some sort of peer-review method. “Otherwise, we’d be facing the daunting task of trying to build it and maintain it ourselves,” he says. And the database isn’t the only thing that will be open to collaboration. “Anybody can build this thing,” Franklin says. “We’re going to have the parts list freely available, the software as well. That’s the plan for what we’re delivering this fall.”

Today, all private and public drone operation is regulated de jure by a rudimentary set of guidelines, including requirements that pilots maintain line-of-sight and fly below 400 feet; the de facto rules depend more on how much local authorities are interested in, or aware of, drone enthusiasts’ activities, creating an extremely irregular enforcement environment. And the ambiguities extend beyond the practicalities of unmanned aircraft hobbyism: In 2012, Seattle police fought, and lost, a public-relations battle over their purchase of a pair of Draganflyer X6 surveillance drones. After several contentious public meetings, the city returned the two drones it had purchased.

John Franklin views the Seattle situation as an example of the system functioning correctly: “I think that you have to worry more about the individually owned drones, if only because the government usually follows the laws that we enact. Still, we have to make sure that there are laws in place so that local governments are doing the right thing before any controversial use of drones occurs.”

***

Anti-drone activism can hardly be confined to a neat demographic. When it comes to surveillance, most comforting political narratives collapse under scrutiny.

The anti-war organization Code Pink has started a monitoring and advocacy group called Drones Watch. In the U.S. Senate, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul delighted conservatives with his 13-hour filibuster on the topic of possible drone strikes on U.S. soil.

In 2013, members on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly lost a vote to limit PRISM data collection to individuals under active criminal investigation. Although those in support of the limits were widely derided as the extremes of both parties, the inverse coalition constituted a political chimera that included the White House and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for the Democrats and House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for the Republicans.

Unsurprisingly, interest in the topic goes beyond American aerospace scientists and activist politicians. Al Jazeera and other media outlets have reported on the so-called Al-Qaeda Papers, a set of documents discovered by the Associated Press in Mali in 2013. One such document begins, “In support of Ibyan province (Yemen) Military Research Workshop.” The document addresses methods by which fighters can oppose the American “War of the Drone.” The author suggests a variety of basic practices for avoiding detection and high casualty rates as well as some tentative ideas for countermeasures, including “spreading the reflective pieces of glass on the roof of the car,” using “skilled snipers to hunt the drone” and jamming a drone’s signal using an “ordinary water-lifting dynamo fitted with a 30-meter copper pole.” Further research is proposed on using “old equipment…similar to that used by the Yugoslav army when they used the microwave oven in attracting…NATO missiles,” and “the Russian-made ‘racal.’”

It would be wrong to view these plans as merely speculative. In 2009, reports circulated that armed groups in Iraq and Afghanistan had been able to track the location of Predator drones and observe their pilots’ practices by intercepting their then-unencrypted control feeds using freely available software. A publicly circulated document attributed to a security researcher named “Kingcope” and titled “Reading Mission Control Data Out of Predator Drone Feeds” demonstrated the technique in operation. Reuters, Al Jazeera and other outlets have excerpted Azan, an online magazine that makes one of its feature articles “a call to anyone in the Islamic Ummah with knowledge, expertise, and theories regarding anti-drone technology…who would assist their brothers in combating these evil missiles designed by the devils of the world.” Although short on practical suggestions, the article takes as its key premise that individual members of the Ummah must not assist in drone strikes by identifying targets, in order to break “the drone chain…the American control rooms to the Pakistani ground intelligence to the local spies.”

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Trumping even the discontinuities of who is for or against drone use, the questions about power raised by drones and other recent technologies, like Google Glass and 3D-printed firearms, can seem unbearably complicated. Is Drone Shield a civil rights must? Does creating such a device somehow aid “bad guys”? (Such questions have been raised repeatedly about strong publicly available encryption and anonymous browsing technologies like the Tor network.) And who are the bad guys?

In 2011, Apple patented a technology that would allow the record function on phones and tablets to be remotely blocked. Does such a functionality protect privacy for individuals? Or does it curtail police and government accountability? Who has a right to make, alter or use a particular technology, and in what circumstances? For Franklin, the baseline is simple: “People are shocked by PRISM, but then the same people don’t care at all about their privacy online. They share their personal information with every website they go to. I think that people have the right to privacy if they choose it. You can choose not to have a Facebook account and not to use Gmail. I am worried about the ability of people to choose their level of involvement in these things. Right now, I can choose to use cash if I don’t want there to be a record of my transaction. I think that’s important to preserve. It’s up to us to be sure that there’s a legal framework in place to preserve that in the future.”

Drone Shield initially seems reminiscent of projects like Michael Rakowitz’s influential paraSITE installations, for which the artist designed and constructed inexpensive, transparent shelters for the homeless. Each plastic unit had an appendage specifically adapted to dock with the heat-exhaust vents of large buildings, simultaneously inflating and warming the igloolike structures. A professional artist, Rakowitz works under the veil of contemporary art and created and distributed only seven (heavily documented) structures. When asked about the comparison to Rakowitz’s paraSITE project, Franklin responded with typical optimism: “I set out to solve a problem, but at the end of the day if it turns out to be a conversation starter, or more of a touch-point for society, that would be deeply rewarding as well.”

Optimism is laudable, but the implications of technologies like Drone Shield seem to be simultaneously more pragmatic and more profound. The first batch of Pi-based units shipped in September at $99 each. Franklin hopes his team can eventually move to a more traditional production model and pare the price down to $20, making Drone Shield much less like a high-concept art piece or protest statement and a lot more like a motion-sensor light that you buy at the hardware store and stick to your garage.

Drone Shield is a technology tailor-made for a Drone World. In Drone World, check and make sure you’ve opted out of “sharing”. In Drone World, it’s unreasonable to assume that no one is taking your picture. In Drone World, you need to be careful what you say in your correspondence, because the latest not-yet-leaked government program is vacuuming it up and saving it for later. Drone World is the guerrillaization of everyday privacy, and it seems to be the birthing ground for its own cottage defense industry. “We make robbery illegal,” says John Franklin. “And people still buy locks for their doors. That’s where Drone Shield comes in.”

Illustration by Sarah Wilson.

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