Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally released its proposed rules for domestic drones in US airspace. Now comes months of public debate, and still longer before the laws are fully hammered out.
This was bound to happen sooner or later. And yes, this new tech will most likely be bumping up against our already-battered Fourth Amendment. There will be issues to work out over privacy and filming. The government will probably try to strangle the industry, or at least try to keep it small enough to stay in its crib. We shouldn’t let them. We should, however, encourage protection such as the suggested Massachusetts legislation which would restrict law enforcement drones, and require a warrant for their use in most circumstances. In short, we need to let the industry run as freely as possible, and focus on police, surveillance, and war drones instead.
Drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles as the industry wishes we would call them – are scary. They are a cheap, efficient, traumatizing way for America and its allies to keep a constant presence in countries with which they aren’t even at war. They have killed thousands and will kill more. Hell, someday blowback may take the form of terrorists using drones for violent ends.
This technology is also brilliant for spying, both domestically and abroad. Not that we’re allowed to know about that much of the time. For example, earlier this week the Border Patrol rejected a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information on their practice use of drones on the border all the back in 2003. There are now nine drones which fly on the border of Mexico, but their use – which includes lending the vehicles out to domestic agencies hundreds of times – is jealously guarded. However, a recent report revealed that in spite of a planned expansion to 24 drones, most of the time the fleet sits on the ground.
In spite of the fact that cost is still getting in the way of a drone-built Panopticon, the idea of banning drones can be very tempting. After all, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are nervous about them. Why shouldn’t we be?
We should be. But like guns or even airplanes, the technology exists, and will not un-exist. So what can we do but accept this, and try to fight the use of drones as military and surveillance tools? Getting too bogged down in the technology would be like focusing on guns instead of war. Guns are a convenient tool of war, but they are not war itself – that justified, excused, and glorified mass slaughter. To focus on technology that can be used both against violent, aggressive institutions as well as by them is to miss the real enemy.
Drones can be used by the government to kill, or by a private citizen to spy on others. But the little guy, or the peacenik guy can benefit from them as well. A lawmaker in Texas is trying to bar people from filming police within 25 feet. Could small drones help with holding public officials accountable? It’s certainly possible. News outlets have begun to use them as well. How useful this can be when media is barred from reporting either because of real dangers, or because of government restrictions. Imagine if we had had cheap, small drones during the Waco standoff. The media could have actually reached one half of the story, or at least filmed enough to remind people that there were real humans inside the building, not just cultists or enemies of law enforcement.
Finally, with a real counter to their use as deliveries of death, a drone company CEO suggested this weekend during the SxSW fest that drones can be used to sniff out unexploded bombs. Laos – full of Vietnam war era arms – was the first example offered. This is a great idea, and a great use of the technology. Drones mapping out mine fields and relicts of wars seems like karmic justice for the sinful way they’ve been used in the Middle East. We can use these war machines to stop war, and to help clean up its lingering, monstrous effects. And it’s practical. Areas where it is dangerous for humans to tread need human eyes on them. We can do this with drones.
This is all new and scary. There are serious problems with drones that will need to be addressed. However, it is better to proactively use them against the worst of the state, than to passively assume that the state will regulate them in any sensible fashion.