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From the Jetsons to Omniscient: Unmanned Air Vehicles and Digitalization

Issue 5 - 2020
From the Jetsons to Omniscient: Unmanned Air Vehicles and Digitalization
by Gizem Yardımcı- Aviation Expert, Lawyer by Altuğ Yalçıntaş - Ankara University, Faculty of Political Sciences, Department of Economics

Not long ago, in 2001, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as Drones) were being used in Afghanistan for military purposes. Today, UAVs are used in areas such as agriculture, healthcare, logistics, photography, and cartography. How did aviation technology “progress” this level and how much “further” will it go? Now that UAVs have entered our daily lives, what measures should governments take in terms of national security and social welfare?

Perhaps you remember the cartoon, “The Jetsons.” This cartoon depicts a utopian design of the future, a promising period full of terrific inventions that would facilitate the lives of people: Video chats, smart watches and smart televisions, robots assisting in housework, flying cars and products delivered by air. All these fantasies have now come true in our lifetime.

In 1849, at the moment when Austrian forces attempted to float unmanned hot air balloons with time fuse bombs in Venice was the moment where an unmanned aerial vehicle was used for the first time. We consider the use of hot air balloons as the predecessor to UAVs. And in April and November of 1908, the landing of 10 German hot air balloons carrying German aviators in France after passing the border paved the way for the organization of the Paris Conference in 1910. The Paris Conference was a significant factor leading to the discussion of aviation law on an international platform.

UAVs have played a critical role in the internationalization of aviation law. Since the use of hot air balloons, UAVs had been tested and tried for military purposes in the US. The first American unmanned aircraft was the radio-controlled “Sperry Aerial Torpedo” in 1917.

Digitalization of UAVs

Digitalization, that is, the process enabling computers to decode data composed of 0s and 1s, facilitated the launch of the “technology of the Jetsons” that we once thought was far from us. However, non-durable digital devices with greater operational capacity have already replaced analogue devices. This applies to aviation as well, with the exception of space technologies. In space technologies, analogue devices are regarded as more durable and reliable than digital devices and are still being utilized. Then again, today we see the digitalization of many devices all around us, ranging from phones, radios and to means of transport.

When air vehicles were first introduced, they were analogue. In fact, when they first came out, computers were analogue too. Since hot air balloons were the predecessor to UAVs, UAVs first emerged as analogue devices as well. Modern UAVs, however, can be remotely controlled. They are airborne and capable of simultaneously executing multiple operations in terms of both communication and working principles. Most importantly, UAVs are now equipped with several digital features. For instance, they are capable of recording images and sounds. Today, UAVs are fully digitalized.

Presently, we come across digitalization in almost all aspects of our daily lives. The origin of digitalization lies in the two-digit number system developed by G.W. Leibniz in his book "Explanation of Binary Arithmetic" published in 1703 and it paved the way to the emergence of a new paradigm of technology at the end of 1960s when the internet was first introduced. Ever since the 1990s, digital technologies and the Internet have penetrated our daily lives to the extent that now it is not possible to work out most of our daily chores without these technologies. The storage and utilization of data acquired through UAVs is an issue that should be considered not only through the perspective of aviation but also in economic terms. Currently, we are capable of conducting all our communication and banking operations in a digital environment. We are able to work from home thanks to digital technologies and the Internet. Many processes ranging from supermarket shopping to booking a vacation could not be handled without the ease afforded by digital technologies. Modern bureaucracy, healthcare, and justice systems have also transformed into well-functioning systems with the help of digital technologies.

Digital technologies are often assessed in terms of their useful societal impacts (or “positive externalities,” as referred to by economists.) However, digital technologies cause harmful consequences as well. For instance, surveillance and monitoring systems have entered our public lives as a consequence of digitalization and the Internet.

Today, UAVs mostly fly with high resolution cameras. The cameras do not only enable the flight and ground control of UAVs, in actuality the intended purpose of UAVs (especially in the civil realm) is the collection of the highest number of images in the highest resolution possible.

“Smile, you’re on Google Earth”

Mapping applications, also known as geographical information systems, were the subject of The Economist’s supplement Technology Quarterly published in 2007. The headline was “Smile, You’re on Google Earth.” It seems exciting, doesn’t it? Ultimately, all the images of yourself and the surrounding environment would be publically available to everyone via the internet. Moreover, these applications would be free of charge! This may seem quite simple to most of us, but in fact, it is slightly more complicated than it may appear.  

Since the 1990s, many organizations and companies, particularly NASA and Microsoft, have been interested in geobrowsing. Mapping technologies started to develop quite rapidly with the launch of an American company in 2001 name Keyhole. This company was taken over by Google in 2004 (The Economist, September 8, 2007). Currently Keyhole is providing services such as social monitoring and hashtag tracing. Today, many of us are using applications such as Google Earth, Google Maps, and Yandex Maps when heading towards a specific address or checking the location of an address.

How does geobrowsing work? The addresses, directions, and descriptions provided by mapping applications are composed of data already queried by thousands of people. This is called crowdsourced surveillance. Applications such as Google Maps and Yandex Maps do not suggest an original address description; they provide you with the former experiences of thousands of Internet users. Before you, Internet users found the same addresses useful so they tracked the route. The only thing these applications do is track the actions of thousands of people - including you – and actions are recorded, stored and processed and the data is made available to you and others.

You may have noticed that Google Maps and Yandex Maps sometimes direct you to a wrong address. They also present you a longer description. Most of us get frustrated with these applications when they generate such useless results. Though, these applications mostly direct you correctly after certain calculations on places everybody goes to. This is how it works. Above all, they even take the traffic density into consideration!

The services provided by Google Maps or similar applications are really amazing, aren’t they? Well, what would you have thought if you had known that these apps constantly tracked thousands of people? Furthermore, you are being watched right now as you are using Google Maps. Doesn’t it bother you?

Apps such as Google Maps, Google Earth, and Yandex Maps track user actions, monitor how long they stop at traffic lights, and even register data regarding when they put on the brakes. This is at the core of how UAVs operate. Today, UAVs execute the delivery of products (such as medical equipment). They are utilized in agriculture and various other industries with the list expanding each day. During the COVID-19 pandemic, UAVs have been used to warn citizens and take the body temperature of people through thermal cameras. We need to take a moment here and ask the following questions: Will internet companies such as Google, Yandex, and Facebook keep growing as they continue to obtain and extract more data about our lives?  Everything is tracked on a collective scale, where we are going, the streets, houses and exact locations, through greater and more functional tools such as UAVs. What are some of the repercussions of mass surveillance and continuous collection of data? Will individual human willpower and personal expression be at risk of disintegration as a more connected and integrated world is formed? Will smart devices make decisions on our behalf?  

What are UAVs capable of?

Agricultural irrigation and spraying, transportation, communication, photography, cartography and advertising are amongst the areas where UAVs are commonly used. In the US, companies such as Amazon use UAVs for the delivery of cargoes. In Turkey, the PTT (Postal and Telegraph Corporation) is exerting efforts toward the launch of such services. UAVs are also utilized for the transport of organs for organ transplantation and for the delivery of medicine.

So far, so good. The problem has nothing to do with the ways in which UAVs facilitate our lives; instead, the problem has a lot to do with the ways in which they collect data about us, our houses, and the neighborhood we live in while they operate. The issue is about the massive capacity of UAV companies in collecting personal data about the people we are in contact with, the places we travel to, and the medicines we use. Above all, companies employing UAVs obtain detailed information about us on a regular basis. At this point, we are talking about very detailed personal data such as where we travel to, at which time of the year, what the weather will be like during our journey, with whom and how frequently we communicate, at which hour of the day we leave our homes, how frequently we purchase our medicine, and the list goes on. This information is often sensitive and it would enable the collection of other information as well. We do not know whether individuals and companies will use this information for commercial purposes or for intelligence purposes. Although many of us hesitate to share sensitive information with the government, we willingly and happily share it with major companies for online purchases for example. There is a major lack of non-liability in favor of UAV holding companies.

UAVs are capable of doing more than we can imagine. In the past, they were utilized merely for military purposes and were equipped with thermal cameras and facial recognition systems. Today they are used for taking temperatures, for facial recognition of the persons with high body temperatures, and for preventing the spread of disease during the COVID-19 pandemic. How should we protect the personal data and private healthcare information of citizens in such an unregulated market? The laws and regulations are not sufficient at this point. We may have to underline the essence of the full implementation of the laws here (thus the enforcement of the law).

Recently introduced mobile phones are now capable of wide angle shots, capturing images in a clarity that human beings fail to see or perceive. Also, the images recorded by these mobile devices are capable of recording images in angles I fail to see, meaning that I may not be aware of it whatsoever. The issue is not only that images could captured without me being aware of it, but more importantly that the images are digitally stored at locations outside national borders. This also applies to UAVs as well.

Naturally, UAVs with thermal cameras and facial recognition features could be used for maintaining public health. However, are the images that UAVs capture and the data they record limited by the “terms and conditions”? Who is informed and liable for the limits of recording this type of data? To what extent are the companies accountable?

Another point related with the widespread utilization of UAVs is that this technology is not only restricted to acquiring the data. This technology violates public privacy. The work conducted so far extensively discusses the right to privacy of the individual and the privacy of personal data. Then again, another equally critical problem is the invasion of public property and the privacy of data owned by the general public. This topic has not yet been sufficiently discussed and the implications are vast.

We are capable of virtually travelling to many cities across the globe with the help of the aforementioned mapping applications. We are able to observe monuments, buildings with high architectural value and approximately view all the streets of a given city - including the touristic and non-touristic sights. However, this situation at the same time causes a national security problem. Similar to the way we get disturbed when our photos are taken without our authorization, we should not be disturbed when enjoying the parks, streets, buildings, and even the interiors of these buildings that are subject to public property, when they are displayed publically in 3D. 

In the past, the data acquired via mapping used to be stored and protected digitally. Now, they are "protected" openly. However, we’re also facing a risk when keeping geographical informational in the form of open data. Even though Google Earth and other applications seem to be civilian companies, they may easily be used for military purposes and violate both the privacy of users and manufacturers.

We come across another interesting question here: Aside from the ownership of private property, who owns shared natural environments such as mountains, rivers, lakes, coastlines, flora, etc.? Without doubt, all is owned by the public. So, is it not a violation of public property when images are displayed and openly published without the consent of designated public authorities? 

Responsibilities of public authorities

The integration of UAVs with digital technologies does not seem to be ending soon. Governments will once again be responsible for tackling the critical issues particularly in terms of the fundamental rights and freedoms created by this process and of national security and social welfare.

In fact, these issues are not the ones to be solely resolved by law or engineering sciences. Netizens (citizens of the internet, so to speak) produce and share data, but big data companies process the data that the netizens generate to obtain further information and by so doing, they operate under high rates of profit. Big data means big money and data mining and analytics companies are raking in huge profits as well. It’s impossible to ignore the economic aspects of this problem.   

Well, what can, and should the governments do? Protection of public property is among the liabilities of governments. This being the case, governments will have to launch new policies for adopting measures against Google Earth and others, against the unauthorized storage and processing of personal data including the exploitation of geographical information, something that has been going on for a long time and seems to be on an uninterrupted path unless intervention is made.

Moreover, the policies and measures in this area may have to be launched immediately because mobile phones will be equipped with the features of UAVs soon. They will then be able to spy on us wherever we go and turn into devices that will allow constant access to us. Will the moment we are continuously watched (24/7) be the moment we feel the safest, just like in the Netflix series Omniscient? To what extent will the generation, recording and processing of data where citizens equipped with many tracking devices living in smart cities be discussed? Governments will have to acknowledge the significance of the surveillance economy and take measures accordingly right away  

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