Friday, January 25, 2013

Burka foils thermal imager

Over the past few years, thermal imaging cameras have been used to locate people by capturing images of the heat emitted by their bodies.

That's because, of course, that when viewed through a thermal imaging camera, warm objects stand out well against cooler backgrounds, hence humans become easily visible against the environment.

Now, due to the miniaturization of electronic and electro-mechanical components, such infra-red cameras can be easily mounted onto inexpensive small unmanned aerial vehicles that can be used by the police forces to assist with public safety missions.

Although relatively few of such drones are currently flown over US soil, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that 30,000 drones will fill the nation's skies in less than 20 years.

However, some Members of Congress and the public fear there are insufficient safeguards in place to ensure that drones are not used to spy on American citizens and unduly infringe upon their fundamental privacy.

Proponents have responded by emphasizing their potential benefits, which may include protecting public safety, patrolling borders, and investigating and enforcing environmental and criminal law violations.

Clothes designer Adam Harvey  is one individual that falls into the former camp. It's clear that he thinks that thermal imaging systems mounted on drones are a threat to our civil liberties. And his concern with protecting the privacy of individuals has now led him to create a range of so-called 'Anti-Drone' garments designed with a fabric that apparently protects the wearer against thermal imaging surveillance.

They work by using highly metallized fibers to reflect heat, thereby masking the wearer's thermal signature. Of the three 'Anti-Drone' pieces that have been created so far, two are inspired by Muslim dress: the burqa and the scarf. A third piece -- the hoodie -- is intended to thwart overhead thermal surveillance from drones.

While I'm as concerned about protecting the privacy of the public as anyone else, I can't help but think that Mr. Harvey may not have thought his idea out quite as thoroughly as he should.

You see, while the metalized fiber burka shown above might well reduce the chances that an individual is spotted by a thermal imager mounted in a police drone, it will certainly increase the chances that the individual will be spotted by police on the ground, since he or she will stick out like a sore thumb.

Reference: Drones in Domestic Surveillance Operations: Fourth Amendment Implications and Legislative by Richard M. Thompson II.

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