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Celebrities safe from roving paparazzi drones ... for now

Drone from University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Operated by Carrick Detweiler, professor of computer science at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-founder of the NIMBUS Lab, the Ascending Technologies Falcon 8 UAV, a $25,000 aircraft with 8 rotors and a gimbal-mounted camera, requires skill — and an FAA license — to fly.Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Seen from a drone flying 400 feet over the Platte River near Duncan, Neb., the extent of the drought comes into view and stretches on to the horizon ... with nary a Kardashian in sight.Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Celebrity gossip site TMZ found itself on the other side of the rumor mill Tuesday morning, after a story claimed it applied for a surveillance drone permit from the Federal Aviation Administration. This news comes just as the FAA pushes back its deadline for selecting drone testing sites, citing for the first time its concerns over privacy.

But fear not, famous people!

Stacked in between posts about Jared Leto’s lack of eyebrows and “ELMO ACCUSER #3” is TMZ’s denial, “We’re NOT Keeping Up with the DRONESES.”

“We don’t have a drone … we don’t want a drone … we never applied for a drone,” the post reads, in part. “Truth is … while drones are, in fact, awesome … it just ain’t true.”

The San Francisco Chronicle added a correction to the online version of its domestic drones story, which initially contained the faulty fact. Tech, privacy and gossip blogs referencing the claim updated their posts as well.

Even the FAA issued a statement, assuring celebrity targets and their concerned fans that "TMZ does not have FAA authorization to fly an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), and we have no record that TMZ ever requested or inquired about an authorization."

But here’s the thing. Faster than TMZ could refute the drone accusation, plenty of people had no problem imagining that TMZ wanted one … and a few were maybe a little surprised to learn the ace gossip gathering institution doesn't have a drone over Kanye West even now.

TMZ.com

 “Of course we were ready to believe,” said Professor Matt Waite, the trailblazer behind the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

If there’s two sure things, Waite told NBC News, it’s that, one day, “paparazzi will use drones way they use helicopters, people on motorcycles, long telephoto lenses and anything else that gets a shot that brings them a bunch money.” The other, nearer sure thing? “Significant lawsuits.”  

This would explain the FAA’s reluctance to allow just any ol’ person to cruise over crowds with what is, pretty much danger-wise, a million-dollar flying lawnmower. 

Drones and journalism have great possibilities. From Fukushima to Gaza, unmanned surveillance drones can help reporters gather important information without risking their lives.

Drones are valuable environmental monitors as well. This year, the Drone Journalism Lab used an unmanned aerial vehicle to document Nebraska’s current drought, said to be even worse than the 1930s Dust Bowl. Aerial shots of the state’s desiccated landscape — dry fields, dead grass and dying trees — tell a story that flow charts recording (the lack of) rain inches just can’t.   

But celebrity stalkers piloting swarms of drones could wreak unprecedented havoc, the likes of which haven't been seen since helicopters cursed the extravagant cliffside wedding of Sean Penn and Madonna back in 1985. (Google it, kids!) Topless royals and hapless Lohans would be at the mercy of GPS-controlled Predators.

Operated by Carrick Detweiler, professor of computer science at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-founder of the NIMBUS Lab, the Ascending Technologies Falcon 8 UAV, a $25,000 aircraft with 8 rotors and a gimbal-mounted camera, requires skill — and an FAA license — to fly.Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

So for now, universities, the military and police departments — as well as drone manufacturers — are the only groups the FAA considers eligible for domestic drone licenses. Universities don't have the funds for drones that can fly for much more than 15 minutes, let alone maintain course in a five mile-per-hour wind.

You are right to be concerned about your privacy, though, even if you’re not a famous person. It's just that the privacy concerns of the moment center around those eligible government agencies. 

"Drones have the ability to carry all types of surveillance  equipment,"Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told NBC News.

"Basic video cameras, infrared cameras, technology to intercept communication. The larger drones purchased and flown by the federal government can fly so high you can’t see them." Drones operated by the feds can fly for days, and take photos that are way better than what you see on Google Earth, Lynch added.

"A lot of concerns raised with surveillance drones are not new," Lynch said. “We would have similar concerns about an area blanketed by security cameras or technology that can intercept cellphone signals."

For all that the EFF and other advocacies, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, know about drones, how that information is used and stored by the government is mostly a mystery to all but insiders.

In October, following what it says were ignored Freedom of Information Act requests, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to find out why the DHS loans out Predator drones to police departments across the country. A similar suit against the FAA resulted in a steady drip of information the EFF updates on its website, along with a map pointing out where drones are located.

While the FAA was quick to quell misinformation about TMZ's lack of a drone, it hasn't been so forthcoming with information about who does have them. Part of the problem, Lynch said, is that the FAA must talk to the agencies its licensed before it makes that information public. 

"The whole point of issuing licenses is so we can see what's going on in the air at any given time," Lynch said. "It's unusual for such a transparent association to keep the information on drone flights so secret, and it's very difficult to evaluate the privacy and free speech concerns about drone flight without the information about who is flying drones right now." 

Well, at least we know it's not TMZ. One day, the skies may be abuzz with paparazzo-copters training their 360-degree cameras on wardrobe-malfunctioning starlets or spawning Kardashians. For the time being though, thanks to the FAA, it'll still just be dudes on scooters.

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about privacy and then asks her to join her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+. Because that's how she rolls.