Sunday, June 17, 2012

No Privacy from Airborne Eyes

"The farmer heard the small plane droning in the distance as the pilot scanned the creek for signs of manure contamination." This is how I imagine this story started. Start the telephone game, result: The Environmental Protection Agency is using drones to spy on Americans!

There were never any drones. It was just regular planes like the kind that fly over my house all the time. I saw the Daily Show bit last week making fun of the Fox News team who were outraged that the EPA would use drones to spy on farmers. Jon Stewart seemed primarily interested in the fact that it's not the same drones as in the war zones. I was just not that interested at all because I've used Google Earth. What's the big deal? The Environmental Agencies are the main source for high resolution aerials on there. This is not new.

There is no privacy from the sky. There just isn't. I don't know if it's a right or not, it's irrelevant. It's already a lost cause. Aerial photography and photogrammetry has been an invaluable tool for planning for decades. They even do flights where they scan whole counties with lasers (LIDAR) to accurately map basins. The water flowing across your land is the business of the Environmental Agencies. Fires started on your land are the business of the forestry service. I am glad to hear and see these planes going by, and the military helicopters too. They're doing their job. I'm glad somebody has one. If I'm out in the yard taking a shower when they fly by I just give them a big wave. I expect they are up there for some important reason besides invading my privacy. Actually catching somebody in a private situation is just a bonus.

I do check Google Earth frequently to see if the latest view of my house caught me in the yard. The most recent one is taken from the East so a tall tree is blocking the view of my shower, but you can see my birdbathtub and the orange apron of the gopher hole by my driveway and the roof of my buildings. I used to rationalize that an aerial picture of me in the shower would only be the top of my head and shoulders, nothing to see here. But the views are actually rather oblique. As long as my tall trees are in the way though, it's fine.
But in Nebraska, the cattlemen have raised new concerns about the effect of the flights. “It is truly an invasion of privacy,” said Chuck Folken, who runs a farm and cattle feedlot in Leigh, Neb. Farmers worry about photos of private homes and back yards winding up in government files. “We don’t need our own government . . . flying over us, taking pictures of us, telling us what we’re doing wrong.”
Winding up in government files? Get a clue man! Pictures of private yards are in ALL the files, government, private, and public to the world. They're free for everybody on the internet! You may not need them flying over telling you what you're doing wrong, but I sure as hell appreciate it when they find out about what you're doing wrong and STOP you. As a person who isn't doing anything wrong I'm pretty glad they're watching out for people that are. That's why I pay taxes. I need there to be a mechanism for stopping people like that guy from ruining the whole ecosystem.

Just to prove this "invasion of privacy" complaint is a ridiculous reaction for 2012 I opened up Google Earth and grabbed a sample of screenshots. They always show the source of the photo at the bottom of the window. (I worked for Merrick in 2000, a company that gets hired to do these aerials.)

1994 Aerial Photo of my driveway, USGS
2004 Aerial Photo of my driveway, Florida Department of Environmental Protection,
which is weird because this property isn't even in Florida. But Florida is downhill from here,
therefore they care what happens on the uphill side of the state line.
I don't know why they update the copyright date for a 2004 photo.
Current 2012 Google Earth screen capture of my driveway taken by yet another government agency
When you're looking up close you get the aerial photos. It's only when you zoom out that they make a matrix of satellite and aerials. Those last two listed on this picture are satellites, the first is flying small planes.

To me this whole story is as dumb as somebody being flabbergasted to find out that their phone number comes up on a display on the other end when they call somebody. Yes, Caller ID, it's been around a while. Welcome to the future.


  1. Look out for the drones! Love the Daily Show clip for this one.
    Hah! Where you live, it's not the drones you'd need to be wary of anyway. It's the guys from the US Army Flight School at Ft. Rucker, who seems to always find ways of locating people who tan in the buff, or have swimming pools. They mark them on their flight maps.
    Outdoor shower? Grid Coordinates 16SGL01948253. Mark it!

  2. There's probably a note on the map "Two outdoor showers and bathtubs 0.75 miles apart. Don't waste your time. Occupants all old, flat chested, and boring. Not even sure they're women."