8 Creepy Spy Technologies That Can Be Hitched to Your Neighborhood Drones

America's cities may soon be swarming with surveillance drones equipped with high-tech snooping tools.
March 13, 2012  |  
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Last fall, the Montgomery County Sheriff's department got together for a photo op showing off a new unmanned surveillance craft. The $300,000 drone did not have an

auspicious debut. Minutes after take-off, the UAV lost touch with the control console and plummeted to earth, crashing into the police officers assembled for the launch. No one was hurt, because police were hanging out in their armored car ("the Bearcat") another warzone weapon that has crept into the arsenals of local cops around the country (the Bearcat came out alright). 

Civilians, however, don't ride around in armored vehicles Mad-Max-style, so the FAA has been charged by Congress to come up with safety regulations that would prevent drones from raining from the sky or colliding with airplanes. 
Meanwhile, there are no such plans underway to build legal barriers against the privacy erosions portended by cheap, versatile, unmanned aircraft -- drones small enough to fly around your window or large enough to hover far above the earth, out of site but watching over miles of land.
Police enthusiasm for military weaponry (and a drone industry salivating over a new market) is driving a rapid spread of domestic law enforcement drones, which are already being used by border agents. In February, the FAA was directed to lay out guidelines opening up airspace for commercial and civil drones by 2015, at the latest; the technology is likely to be embraced by property companies, paparazzi, and totally random people who want to spy on others. (There are also many positive uses, like helping track wildfires or oil spills.)
Privacy advocates are duly freaked out. "All the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life—a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States," the ACLU's Jay Stanley and Catherine Crump wrote in a report released earlier this year (PDF). A long tradition of government inaction in response to the privacy threats unleashed by new technologies does not auger well for Americans' expectations of privacy.
Drones may beso intrusive that M. Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics for the Center for Internet and Society, thinks they might finally shake Americans out of their complacency about the relentless attacks on their privacy in the decade after 9/11.
"People would feel observed, regardless of how or whether the information was actually used. The resulting backlash could force us to reexamine not merely the use of drones to observe, but the doctrines that today permit this use," Calo writes in the Stanford Law Review.
AlterNet has assembled an incomplete list of spy technologies and surveillance programs, military and civilian, that can take to the air on drones. Here are eight things that could potentially be strapped to the UAV that may be flying over your head in the next few years. 
1. WiFi and phone hacking: The Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform (WASP) can break into WiFi networks and hack cell phones, according to Forbes. Jerry-rigged from an old army drone by two former military network security analysts, the spy plane comes with a Linux system and dictionary to help generate password-cracking words. 
Plus, its antennas mimic cell phone towers, allowing the machine, allegedly, to tap into cell phone conversations and access text messages. "Ideally, the target won’t even know he’s being spied on,” one of the designers told Forbes.
Their intentions are not to get a head start on unleashing a dystopian future where no conversation is private, but to show how easily breached communication networks are. Point taken. 
2. NYPD sensor that sees through clothes: The NYPD, which is not known for its cautious approach to the use of surveillance, announced recently that it was perfecting a sensor that uses radiation to reveal weapons hidden under a person's clothes. The technology can clearly be put to good use, diffusing dangerous situations and saving lives. But as NYCLU director Donna Lieberman said in a statement, it would be helpful if the NYPD shared what the surveillance can do and its intentions for using it: “We have no idea how this technology works, if it is effective, and what its error rate is. If the NYPD is moving forward with this, the public needs more information about this technology, how it works and the dangers it presents." (The NYPD is also not hailed for its transparency.)
Right now the sensor can "see" metal objects from a few feet away and the department is trying to expand its reach to 82, according to NYPD spokesman Paul Browne, in an interview in the New York Times. 
Ryan Calo told AlterNet, "Why not have drones fly around looking for guns then?" 
3. Biometrics: Advances in facial recognition, iris scans and other identifying biometric markers are speeding along, with both police departments and federal agencies juicing up the biometrics industry by offering a welcoming market for its wares. This includes the MORIS device, spreading through police departments all over the country, which lets police capture iris scans and run image algorithms that can recognize a person from the geometry of his or her face. Biometrics like facial recognition (and eventually iris scans) are a natural fit for aerial vehicles, as camera zoom and image quality continue to improve. Meanwhile, government databases are collecting more biometric information from more people, making the technology increasingly useful as an identification and tracking tool. The logical outcome: a zoom lens on a drone could zero in and snap a picture that can be scanned and run through a number of databases, including ones kept by DHS, DOJ and DoD, without anyone being the wiser. 
4. Video analytics: The video analytics industry seeks to develop systems that can analyze and interpret data. So instead of a stream of raw footage, the camera itself can perform searches for people and objects of interest. One example is LPR readers that can read license plates and run them against a database, helping match identity and track location. Those are already in use all over the world, and more sophisticated forms of video analytics have also started to creep into metro areas. Chicago, which bears the honor of being called the most surveilled city in America by Michael Chertoff, has cameras that can track specific people or cars as they move around the city, according to the ACLU of Illinois (PDF).
Private companies, government agencies and academic institutions are working to improve cameras that can hone in on specific objects or people, figure out location, or pick people out of a crowd.
DARPA, the military's science lab, has one of the more ambitious projects in play, as Wired's Danger Room reported last year. The "Mind's Eye" project would power cameras with artificial intelligence that lets them decide what to monitor -- visual intelligence that lets them pick out "operationally significant activity and report on that activity so warfighters can focus on important events in a timely manner."
5. Sense-through-the-wall (STTW) technology: For about a decade various branches of the military have been working to create sensors that can penetrate walls. DARPA's Visibuilding project is working on "surveillance capabilities to detect personnel within buildings, to determine building layouts, and to locate weapons caches and shielded enclosures within buildings," according to the DARPA site. The US Army's research arm (CERDEC) has also developed technology that can sense behind walls.
The appeal of STTW technology in urban warfare is clear, and offers obvious temptations to domestic law enforcement as well; an NIJ (research arm of DOJ) report from 2008 laments the fact that some of the best stuff is still too expensive for many domestic agencies, like the $20,000 RadarVision2, which can sense people 30 feet into a room (in this case, the Fourth Amendment against search and seizure would likely come into play).
6. ARGUS-IS, the 100-eyed giant: The military's ARGUS-IS (Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System) endows the A-160 Hummingbird, one of the military's newest, fanciest drones, with the power to stake out 36 miles of land from one spot. The sensors can absorb 80 years worth of footage in a single day, using 65 video screens capable of tracking different locations, according to Wired. According to DARPA's site, "Each video window is electronically steerable independent of the others, and can either provide continuous imagery of a fixed area on the ground or be designated to automatically keep a specified target (dismount or vehicle) in the window." ARGUS-IR adds infrared vision to the setup. 
7. Gorgon Stare: The Gorgon Stare is similar to ARGUS-IS, except that it's named after a monster that can turn people to stone, rather than merely a giant with 100 all-seeing eyes. Hitched to Reaper drones, Gorgon Stare is supposed to collect information from an entire small town or city and send data to troops in the field and to ground stations for deeper analysis. "Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we're looking at, and we can see everything," an Air Force general told the Washington Post.
(Gorgon Stare is also notable for failing spectacularly the first time it was tested, deemed "not operationally effective" by DoD testers, in a memo obtained by Winslow Wheeler, director of the Center for Defense Information. The Air Force claimed it could be fixed.)
8. Wide Area Aerial Surveillance System (WAASS): ARGUS-IS and Gorgon Stare are planned for Afghanistan, but as Wired reported in January, the Department of Homeland Security has inquired about a similar system that can scan large swathes of land in the US. The agency has solicited industry feedback on the possibility of a surveillance system that does the following:
The primary objective of WAASS is to provide persistent, long-term surveillance over urban and rural terrain at least the size of 16 km2. The surveillance system shall have an electro-optical capability for daylight missions but can have an infrared capability for day or night operations. The sensor shall integrate with an airborne platform for data gathering. The imagery data shall be displayed at a DHS operations center and have the capability for forensic analysis within 36 hours of the flight. 
As Spencer Ackerman points out, "If it’s starting to sound reminiscent of the spy tools the military has used in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should."