If an Amazon drone were to stumble into the airspace above Phillip Steel’s yard in Deer Trail, Colo., he knows exactly what he’d do: Grab his shotgun. “I would shoot it down, ordinance or no, I would shoot it down,” he tells me over the phone, later adding, “I will shoot it down and go to jail with a smile over my face.”
Deer Trail is one place Amazon probably won’t pilot its “Air Prime” drone delivery system. The town is poised to vote in the next week and a half on an ordinance that will allow drone hunting, an ordinance Steel authored.
That is, the measure will allow citizens of Deer Trail to purchase $25 drone-hunting licenses and then bring pieces of shot-down drones back for a bounty of up to $100. The text of the ordinance oozes with a not-on-my-lawn disdain for the copters. “As such, every unwanted unmanned aerial vehicle is hereby declared a threat to … precious freedom,” it reads. And, yeah, the kids can get in on the drone shooting too. “There shall be no age requirement or restriction for issuance of the hunting license.” No background investigations will be needed to obtain a drone hunting license. It’s that essential of a right.
Perhaps you’ve heard of this. It’s the kind of stunt that gets noticed by the Colbert Report, and that’s kind of the point. Steel’s the type of person to make his case to a town council wearing a cowboy costume and brandishing a plastic nerf rifle. He says he sent a drone-hunting license to Vladimir Putin. He also says he has Edward Snowden’s phone number, but hasn’t called him yet. Last week, he staged a drone-hunting practice session using model rockets in place of UAVs.
“Technology advances far quicker than the law does; as a society we are too eager to embrace the next new toy.”
He tells me he spent 14 years in the Army as a Psychological Warfare officer. I asked him what that meant and he summed it up as “propaganda.” And he says he’s using that experience in what he more euphemistically calls “marketing” to get the word out about drones. “I wouldn’t say that I’m a fear monger; I’m trying to illuminate an imminent threat that is on the horizon,” he says. “The perception in the absence of fact becomes reality.”
Basically, he’s creating a farce to make his central point: What does the mass proliferation of drones mean for privacy? For property rights? If a drone flies within 1,000 feet of a person’s airspace, is that a trespass? These are the questions the FAA will have to deal with as it makes recommendations for commercial drone use.
FAA chief Michael Huerta outlined a five-year roadmap last month charting how the agency plans to integrate commercial drones into national airspace, beginning with the announcement of six test site locations by the end of the year. A draft rule is expected early next year, but it is only expected to cover applications for drones that would fly under 400 feet above ground and remain within the visual line of sight of a pilot during daytime. It’s a far cry from the drones Bezos imagines, which would travel up to 10 miles from a distribution center. “You have to pity the poor guy at the FAA,” Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says. “I have this image of some poor guy at the FAA eating his leftover turkey sandwich, watching 60 Minutes and going, ‘oh, crap.’”
“Do I think 1984 is going to happen?” Steel says, downplaying the hyperbole. “Not in the same sense as George Orwell did — but I think its going to be a lot trickier than that, a lot more subtle.”
And it’s true: Expansions of technology from retailers have limited the privacy of consumers. There’s that infamous story of Target knowing a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did. But that’s just the tip of a massive industry that rests on selling consumer-behavior profiles (detached from key identifiers, but still, encompassing the shadow of a person’s buying habits).
“Technology advances far quicker than the law does; as a society we are too eager to embrace the next new toy,” Steel says. The Supreme Court every year has such a case — can GPS units track cars without a warrant, is a DNA database search an invasion of privacy, and so on. And while the Deer Trail ordinance is a bit of a joke, there are many states that have considered drone privacy laws, to lay the legal groundwork before the technology becomes commonplace.
Amazon has put forth a tantalizing scenario: the skies buzzing with instant gratification. But that’s bound to have some unintended consequences — if it’s even practical.