Will Drones Over Manhattan Lead to Privacy Speakeasies?

Will Drones Over Manhattan Lead to Privacy Speakeasies?

In a radio interview last week, controversial New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg all but conceded that unmanned NYPD spy drones would one day be flying overhead in Manhattan. It's a "scary" concept, he said, but part of a broader societal and technological shift from "privacy" to "visibility" as the new default option in our lives. Drones over Manhattan, quite simply, are the next logical step in the erosion of our personal privacy that already includes security cameras on every corner, facial recognition technology and the ability to search your smartphone without a warrant. However, what happens when civil liberties that we take for granted today – like the ability to attend a peaceful rally or demonstration without our faces being picked out of the crowd – no longer exist?


As visibility becomes the new normal, people will surely hunt for ways to protect their privacy, even if these methods are on the cusp of legality. Wouldn't you do the same if NYPD drones started to appear outside your apartment window one night? Much as Prohibition drove alcohol consumption underground and created a network of bootleggers and speakeasies, the creation of a modern dystopia patrolled by overhead drones could lead to a similar type of underground black market for privacy. This might include anything from off-the-shelf tools for jamming cameras and GPS-tracking devices or concealing your identity in public to surveillance-free zones similar to the speakeasies of yesteryear. Instead of gambling and alcohol, these speakeasies would offer "privacy" - a place where cameras are turned off for the customers and people could use the Internet without fear of being tracked. 

In December 2012, the Washington Post's Brad Plumer wrote about a crowd-sourced simulation from Wikistrat that attempted to predict what we'd smuggle in the near future. Not surprisingly, "ways to go off-grid" ranked high on the list:

"The Wikistrat simulation seems to envision a future in which governments and businesses can track our every step. (This will be especially true if physical currency ever disappears.) If that happens, then there will be a vibrant black market in ways to “mask individuals’ movement through public spaces,” to travel without being tracked and to log on to the Internet unseen."

Of course, there are some who say that unmanned spy drones overhead are not any different than security cameras hooked up to the corner bodega. Maybe all this is just a bit of techno-hysteria. After all, in last week's radio interview, Mayor Bloomberg pointed out that he had a difficult time "intellectually" with explaining the difference between unmanned drones and security cameras. Point well taken – but consider this – security cameras hooked up to the corner bodega can't follow you around at night. You know when you are being watched by stationary security cameras, and that's not necessarily true with drones that can take your picture or snoop on you from hundreds of meters away.

Moreover, those NYPD surveillance drones won’t be the only drones in the sky – the whole DIY drone movement is just getting started. Some of them are harmless, of course, but others sit ready for takeoff on the dangerous precipice where Peeping Toms and Cyber Criminals hang out. It won't just be the good guys who have drones, it'll be the bad guys as well. Letting unmanned aerial drones into the sky sets a dangerous precedent. At some point, anyone may be able to pick your face out of a crowd and target you for future follow-up -- even if it's just for a marketing message and not something more nefarious. 

Ultimately, as Mayor Bloomberg noted in his interview, the future will be all about visibility. In a few years, privacy will almost seem like a curious artifact from a bygone analog era. We already live our lives in public online, with spyware and cookies tracking our every click and swipe as soon as we fire up our browser. With our mobile devices, we are leaving behind huge trails of data, to the point that people can track not just where we are now, but also where we've been. And, to top it off, new dystopian technologies with innocent-sounding names like CityScan are coming to a city near you. The arrival of overhead surveillance drones someday soon might just be the final move that pushes law-abiding citizens underground to their nearest privacy speakeasy.

image: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle / Shutterstock

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

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Credit: Pixabay
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