Don’t Drone Me, Bro

by Nancy McGuire (wordchemist.com)

(Washington, DC) A quick news search on the word “drone” pulls up associated words including “strike”, “attack”, “secrecy”, and “protest”. Polls and surveys indicate that the word “drone” triggers an anxious response, based on military-heavy news coverage and fears of the various things that drones have come to symbolize. Often, these responses are based on factors not specific to the drones themselves government intrusion, loss of privacy, and the possibility of attack.

These points surfaced throughout the day during “The Drone Next Door“, a May 7, 2013, event hosted by Future Tense. Speakers and panels including journalists, legislators, academics, think tank fellows, representatives from industry and advocacy organizations, law enforcement officers, and scientific researchers discussed all things drone-related: what are they used for now, how are they likely to be used in the near future, and what does this mean for ordinary people at home and abroad.

Future Tense is a collaboration comprising Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. The small auditorium at New America Foundation’s Washington, DC office suite was packed with journalists, policy specialists, hobbyists, and other interested parties, with more people watching via webcast and C-SPAN. Pithy quotes and amusing anecdotes lit up the Twitterverse at @FutureTenseNow #FTdrones.

The May 7 event focused on unmanned aerial vehicles, which most people associate with the word “drone”. These range in size from the airplane-sized Predators to sparrow-sized helicopter toys to robotic flies (still under development). Most of these drones rely on human pilots at the far end of a physical tether or sending radio signals from a remote control station.

Will Salatan, a national correspondent for Slate, opened the session with a summary of polls and surveys designed to measure public support for using drone vehicles in various situations. Unsurprisingly, the phrasing of the questions influenced the answers that people gave. More people were willing to support drone strikes abroad if they were authorized by “the U.S.” rather than “The President”, indicating discomfort with the idea of authority resting with one person. People indicated support for antiterrorism missions and military uses than for things like local law enforcement. The overall sense was that it’s OK to monitor “them” but not “us”, Salatan said. A significant number of people claimed that they would shoot down a drone flying over their property. (Unless it was delivering beer, a potential commercial application that was mentioned later in the day.)

Does having more information increase public support for using drones? If it’s a military application, the answer is yes, said Salatan. For domestic uses overall, having more information doesn’t increase support. This varies when you break it down to specific cases. People tend to view search and rescue operations, drug law enforcement, and immigration law enforcement more favorably than surveillance of suspected criminals (we might get caught in that net), and we really don’t want drones photographing our car as we speed through a school zone.

When people aren’t worrying about unmanned vehicles “raining down death out of the sky” (another phrase that popped up during the day), they stress out over Big Brother peering into their daily activities. Why do people freak out over drones more than social media or credit card companies, voracious collectors of your data? Much of this reaction has to do with the well-publicized military and CIA surveillance applications, according to law professor Daniel Rothenberg of Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

Commercial and government snooping make the news, but usually long after the fact. There’s a sense that you can’t do much about this type of data collection. Government spy drones are “over there”, and we don’t necessarily want them coming home. There is a sense that it’s still early enough in the game to push back against drones doing domestic surveillance.

Under current FAA rules, it’s illegal to use a drone in the United States for commercial purposes. This is slated to change in September 2015, the deadline that Congress has given the FAA to come up with a plan for integrating commercial UAVs into the domestic airspace. Some local governments have already enacted legislation restricting drone use for law enforcement purposes.

There was no consensus at the May 7 event as to how various local and state regulations would affect the FAA’s plan. The FAA’s mandate covers safety issues, not personal privacy, but it would be very difficult to treat these aspects as completely separate, several of the panelists noted. Many of the practicalities will be worked out case by case in the civil and criminal courts, the panelists agreed.

Toward the end of the day, Rothenberg summed up the current situation: “It may not be a rational debate, but at least we’re having the debate.”

More to come
Technology: How are we using unmanned vehicles now, and how will we be using them in the near future?
Hashing it all out: How will we deal with the practical effects of having more unmanned vehicles in our daily lives?

Resources
What the Drone Debate Is Really About (Daniel Rothenberg, May 6, in Slate)
The Golden Age of Privacy Is Over (Brad Allenby, April 30, in Slate)
Will Bureaucracy Keep the U.S. Drone Industry Grounded? (Martin Kaste, April 30, National Public Radio)

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