BROOKE GLADSTONE: In more techno-intrusion news, in the past we’ve addressed the use of military drones on American soil, where their potential for snooping has raised quite a few concerns. Last year, we saw the first reported case of a government drone used in the arrest of an American citizen on his own land. It happened in North Dakota, a place apparently awash in drones. Mark Brunswick covers military affairs for the Star Tribune in Minnesota. He says the episode began when a farmer, Rodney Brossart was tazed and taken into custody after a rapidly escalating argument over six cows.
MARK BRUNSWICK: Fearful that his family might retaliate, authorities actually called in US Customs and Border Protection Predator B, which is an unarmed drone. And actually, twice the drone was used to fly over the Brossart property to surveil what was going on there and ended a 16-hour standoff in which Brossart and five members of his family were arrested.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Brossarts allegedly belong to the sovereign citizen movement and anti-government group that the FBI considers extremist, and there may have been some concern that the confrontation could have escalated into something very bloody.
MARK BRUNSWICK: Well, I actually spent two hours with Rodney and his family two weeks ago. He claims he’s a simple farmer. They did confiscate some arms from the farm, stuff that you might find, at least in my mind, on any farm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The charges were brought against the man but they didn’t cite any video from the drone. How do we know about how it was used?
MARK BRUNSWICK: Well, even Brossart’s attorneys haven’t seen what the drone saw. It wasn’t until the reporter from the LA Times told Rodney’s attorney that it had been used that they were even aware of it. The Brossart attorneys are seeking a dismissal and, as part of their discovery in the criminal case, they’ve sought to see the video, and nobody’s produced it until yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what’s the deal with North Dakota? Recently the University of North Dakota started offering a four-year degree in unmanned aircraft piloting? How did North Dakota get to be the center of this kind of activity?
MARK BRUNSWICK: It’s the first in the country to offer a degree in piloting drones. Nearly at a local community college was the first in the country to offer a degree in mechanics of fixing drones. North Dakota historically is very aviation-centric. It has two Air Force bases and its Air National Guard Unit actually flies drones that are piloted in Fargo but flown in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those air space is what we know as pristine, which means there’s not a lot of there, there. It’s not well trafficked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your recent piece, you wrote that the American Civil Liberties Union is worried about all of this. You quoted saying, “All the pieces appear to be lining up to the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in America life.” How so?
MARK BRUNSWICK: Well, there is some case law related to manned surveillance which applies as well to unmanned surveillance. But there are some issues related to drones that still have yet to be worked out. The efficiency and lack of cost in putting a drone in the air certainly makes it much more easy to just have them there, and the potential for violations of privacy is just sort of exponentially increased.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There haven’t been yet any documented intrusions of privacy by domestic drones, right? And it’s possible we wouldn’t know about them.
MARK BRUNSWICK: Well, that’s part of the deal yeah. Actually, North Dakota is working with law enforcement to develop procedures and policies related to drone use. So it really is in its infancy. To say that we don’t know that it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don’t know why I’m not more upset about this. [LAUGHS] I mean, they can be a real boon to public safety, right?
MARK BRUNSWICK: Absolutely. You can use them for search and rescue. They are used that way. The Predator that was used on the Brossart case also was used to monitor flooding in the Red River Valley. And they could be used to spot wildfires, hotspots before they get out of control. So there’s a huge number of humanitarian and commercial uses.
The funny thing is, when you think about it, a cell phone or the Internet is just as capable of violating your privacy as a drone. It’s just sort of the visceral nature of something hanging over your head and sort of all-seeing is that it’s a human emotion attached to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They’re not all big though. I mean, some of them can fit in the palm of your hand.
MARK BRUNSWICK: That’s right, the more ominous ones. The Predator and the Reaper are larger ones. I just saw last week a less ominous-sounding one from the Army called the Shadow, which is about 14 feet long. But yeah, there’s one called the Hummingbird.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They should probably just rename them, you know, the Tweetie Bird,the Fluffy Cloud. [LAUGHS]
MARK BRUNSWICK: I think we’d all be more comfortable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] Mark, thank you very much.
MARK BRUNSWICK: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Brunswick covers military affairs for the Star Tribune in Minnesota.