This Colorado Man Is Ready to Hunt Amazon Drones

But does he have a point?

National Journal
Brian Resnick
Dec. 3, 2013, midnight

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.

Dustin Volz contributed to this article.
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