The future of drones: Technology vs. privacy

With commercial drones soon to be everywhere, Senate Intel Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein says it’s time to set some rules

Update: The 60 Minutes report "Drones Over America" aired on March 16, 2014.

Will the skies of the future be filled with buzzing drones? Small commercial drones available to anyone are already up. They're monitoring farmers' fields, wildlife and our border and are used by photographers to capture spectacular vistas. Some say drones will replace ground delivery of many of our packages. One enthusiast predicts one in five persons will own one. But the fact that many of these unmanned flying vehicles has a camera raises privacy issues that Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein says may soon need to be addressed through regulation. Morley Safer explores the new world of commercial drones and talks to Feinstein and others about it for a 60 Minutes story to be broadcast Sunday, March 16 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

Currently, drones are hardly regulated and have the potential to be used as flying peeping Toms. Missy Cummings, an ex-Navy pilot who runs the drone research labs at MIT and Duke, says we are already in a surveillance society. "Anything that you have that's electronic is a peeping Tom. I would say probably your greatest privacy invasion is your cell phone, if not your Facebook account," she tells Safer. "Yes, there are potentially flying cameras everywhere, except that in many cities there are cameras everywhere."

Law enforcement has used drones for surveillance. Manufacturers are making drones that look like hummingbirds and dragonflies, further concerning privacy advocates who worry they will be used to spy on others. Sen. Feinstein, the Democrat of California, says this must be addressed. "What is an appropriate law enforcement use for a drone? When do you have to have a warrant?...What's the appropriate governmental use for a drone," she asks. Regulation will be needed. "Perhaps regulation of size and type for private use," says Feinstein. "Secondly, some certification of the person that's going operate it. And then some specific regulation on the kinds of uses it can be put to."

Drone enthusiasts like Cummings say manufacturing them has created a new industry full of jobs; the devices' full potential use for good has yet to be fully determined. She understands this drone-filled future is somewhat scary, but says there is a tradeoff. "I'm willing to accept the possible negative consequences of the technology because it's revolutionizing science and technology in a way that, particularly in the aerospace industry, we have not seen in 25 years," Cummings tells Safer.

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