President Obama's proposed 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) calls for a general ban on drone attacks on American citizens. On the December 1st telecast of 60 Minutes, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled his grand vision for drone attacks on our porches and personal spaces. From a warehouse to your front door, goods delivered in record time with minimal hassle. What could possibly go wrong with that? Pretty much everything and here's why.
First, consider the practical implications. Gift-bearing drones raining down on unsuspecting citizens pose a potential air traffic control nightmare, not to mention a recipe for power line disasters, car accidents, and a litany of potential mistargeted or malfunctioning deliveries. The FAA is attempting to circumnavigate all of this with a series of drone safety and usage rules that Bezos hopes will take effect in 2015. But rules and practice often don't move in sync.
Second, look at the moral implications. Beyond the technology itself, using drones forces us to ask ourselves about the type of world we want to live in. Drones threaten the one last unhampered vestige of privacy we have: our homes. In order to accurately and safely deliver a shipment, the network of drones would need to know the intricacies of where you live and many more details about your comings and goings.
Think of it as Google Maps to the nth degree. Whereas Google Maps show in many instances, outdated satellite imagery of your street or neighborhood, the Amazon model would need to have up-to-the-minute data. The only way to achieve that would be through a system that could constantly monitor your home, to reflect potential barriers for delivery. In other words, there would need to be some kind of eye in the sky watching your world. You may have your fence up, bushes grown, and windows shut, but the drone could see all and by default, so could Amazon or anyone else with drones in play.
And let us not forget that Google incurred millions of dollars in fines for illegally picking up passwords and personal data from unsecured wireless networks while taking city snapshots for its map app. While this is supposedly not Bezos' intent, the fact remains that a drone monitoring network would be able to exploit similar vulnerabilities within our home networks and so much more.
Furthermore, Amazon or similar companies could easily start interpreting the big data it accrues to its own advantage. For example, suggesting products and services based on what it spies about you and your surroundings. Such is already the case online based on your surfing activity. The frightening concept of using satellite imagery to suggest purchases is not that farfetched. In many ways, it would be the natural next step.
And how long do you think it would be before the government tries to utilize such information or demand such data from Amazon and others? About the only safe place left to us would be basements and crawlspaces. Does that sound like paradise? Commercial drones on the scale Bezos envisions portend a dangerous step into an irreversible version of Orwell's "Big Brother Is Watching you" nation. That's the opposite of our forefather's intent for declaring independence.
Interestingly enough, Canada and Australia already allow limited commercial use of drones. A textbook seller in Australia for example, currently delivers books to outdoor locations. Other countries want to use the technology for police procedures. And in China, a company is testing package delivery.
Clearly, this is an issue that goes way beyond Bezos. But his recent declaration brings the debate to the forefront. If indeed this is our future reality, then this issue needs to be better understood and tightly regulated. In truth, an extra day for UPS or FedEx offers far greater value to the truths and rights we hold self-evident, more so than any benefit a drone system could afford businesses the world over.