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Mercury News: Drone use will heighten privacy issues

San Jose Mercury News

First Published Apr 22 2014 09:07 am • Last Updated Apr 22 2014 04:31 pm

It’s simple to explain Google’s and Facebook’s sudden, intense interest in drone technology: An estimated 65 percent of the world’s population today lacks Internet access, and flying robots probably can connect those 4.5 billion potential users to the rest of us.

Talk about expanding markets. Even the Silicon Valley mind boggles.

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Engineers think they can mount lightweight broadband equipment on drones and keep them aloft for days, weeks or months to make connections from the remotest and least advanced regions of the world.

It’s exciting. It’s also another reminder that privacy concerns are reaching new highs, and drones can only drive them higher.

The valley already is struggling with worldwide consumer confidence. The National Security Agency is hacking into systems willy-nilly, while tech companies themselves resist telling consumers how their personal information is being used. And now come drones, which the Obama administration uses to kill people.

Silicon Valley’s future hinges largely on whether it can rebuild the trust that smartphone, laptop and tablet users have in the privacy of tech products. If it can’t, then the potential of the Internet will be limited.

Drones just up the ante. People won’t want them buzzing their once-private backyards, cameras rolling, or tracking their movements based on smartphone signals.

President Barack Obama’s use of drones to spy on and kill military targets doesn’t make the job any easier. The sinister element goes beyond privacy concerns to physical safety - and setting limits will be difficult.

Google elevated snooping concerns in 2013 when it admitted intercepting data transmitted over household Wi-Fi networks while its car-mounted cameras were snapping street-view photos. If Google’s cars were acquiring hundreds of gigabytes of information from users, imagine what drones equipped with transmission gear can do, flying 50,000 feet above cities around the clock.

Google needs to abandon its assertion that data transmitted over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks is fair game. Instead it should be leading the charge to make emails, photos and data more secure as the age of drones approaches.

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Back in 2012, Obama set a 2015 deadline for the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with regulations for domestic use of drones. It will be none too soon; drones are expected to emerge as a $6 billion market in the next 10 years.

But the FAA’s purview is safety. It is not likely to deal with privacy.

So we’re back to our recurring theme: To protect its own industry, Silicon Valley needs to formulate privacy principles that reassure a legitimately worried public and keep the focus on the positive aspects of technology, including the latest drone advancements.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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