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Jay Evensen: Threats to privacy drone on

Published: Sunday, May 1 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Will L. Thompson, a writer and publisher of sacred Christian hymns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, once wrote a piece that stated flatly, "The world has no use for the drone."

The LDS hymn book long since changed those words to something a bit milder. But the truth is that the world of the 21st century does indeed have uses for a drone — lots of them. They may even soon be coming to airspace near you.

And unlike those male honeybees who apparently sit around all day, these drones do quite a bit, indeed.

Americans have been acutely sensitive lately to incursions on their privacy. Apple's Steve Jobs had to temporarily come off medical leave last week to reassure people that millions of iPhones and iPads do not dutifully report their exact locations to the company several times a day.

You can't blame folks for wondering. The devices are gathering location information, even when turned off. A file known as "consolidated.db" on iPhones and iPads, records a device's whereabouts and stores that information indefinitely and without the ability of the user to delete or alter it. Jobs called this a "bug," which to an earlier generation meant something even more threatening to privacy.

A software update will fix everything, he said, allowing devices to save location information for only seven days and allowing users to delete it by turning off location services.

Jobs is only the latest person to encounter the innate American distrust of prying eyes, whether from governments or big businesses. It's a trait that can be traced at least as far back as the Founding Fathers, which is why the Constitution contains protections against searches and seizures without probable cause. It's why, even in the midst of a conflict against a mostly camouflaged enemy, Americans react strongly against laws allowing authorities to review our purchases or what we check out of the library. Some freedoms aren't worth compromising, even in the face of dangers.

But the truth is we're quickly losing whatever privacy we thought we had.

Which brings me back to drones.

The military has been using unmanned aircraft for years, for surveillance as well as to attack elusive targets. Now, police departments want to begin using them.

So far, this involves only a handful of departments. The Washington Post recently identified some of these as Miami-Dade County, Fla., Queen Anne' County, Md., and Mesa County, Colo. Houston officials recently had to admit that a secret test of a drone was for its possible use to record traffic violations, which really put a damper on those plans. Anyone remember photo-cop?

A quick check along the Wasatch Front shows that police here aren't actively pursuing drones, although officials in both the Salt Lake County Sheriff's office and the Utah Highway Patrol said they use remote-controlled helicopters to photograph accident scenes.

A UHP spokesman said the patrol isn't discussing the use of drones but likes to keep abreast of technology. "If it looks like we could benefit from them, we certainly would look into it," he said.

That time may come soon. By 2013, the FAA is supposed to draft new rules on how drones could share the airspace with normal aircraft over cities. That, plus the fact that, as the Post reported, a drone system can cost less than $50,000, compared to about $1 million for a helicopter, may make them attractive tools in years to come.

Drones could have great value. They are virtually invisible when flying several hundred feet high. They could aid police in hostage situations, drug busts or in search and rescue efforts. They also could peer into cars and follow people.

But then, the iPhone's data could be examined, as the Los Angeles Times said recently, "by anyone who takes possession of the device — a jealous lover, a thief, an attorney with a subpoena."

Whether that is good or bad depends on your interests.

It is the interest of the American people, however, that needs careful attention now, before drones and other surveillance devices keep track of even the hymns you sing in private.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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