Responsible Dronership?

The same reasonably low-cost drone could be used innocuously by children for playing, by the army to carry small bombs, or by criminals or jealous lovers for secret and highly sophisticated surveillance. In this article, Sam Smith, a British technologist who has worked with Privacy International and others, asks: who will decide what new laws are needed to control the use of drones in our societies?

 In the first issue of this Micromagazine a story was included that looked at the use of kite mapping by grassroots groups for environmental mapping. Indeed, at the Camp, we got some fun pictures of us all from a kite we flew kitted out with a camera. But camera-equipped kites like this are really a simple form of a low-tech drone and the same kite could be used for good, as the mapping story emphasised, or it could be used for bad, to spy on vulnerable people against their will (although this wouldn’t be so easy given that kites are large and stand out and have limited usefulness as spy tools).

Right now there is not a whole lot of distinction being made between different kinds of and uses of drones. What’s the difference between a small $200 drone that you can buy from Amazon and the same drone fitted with a $5000 infrared HD video camera? What happens when a citizen of Washington or Waziristan flies a drone for fun in their garden or if they accidentally fly over their neighbours garden? What if the police or protesters use a drone to record a protest? And what if a drone operator is a CNN journalist or if they are a convicted criminal? Should drone activity and use be monitored and made transparent, and to whom should this use be made accountable?

An advert for an drone marketed towards teenagers.

New technologies are often first adopted by those who have the most to gain. So on the one hand it’s no surprise that protesters and activists have been quick to take advantage of drones to observe state and corporate behaviour. Drones are already being used by animal rights groups in the US and the UK; in one recent case in the US, even though this drone use by protesters was considered legal, angry pigeon shooters allegedly shot down the drone. But on the hand, the enthusiastic uptake of drones by activists is a bit of a surprise given that they are often an at-risk category for surveillance abuses.

In essence, drones are a flying platform that can contain or be used to carry any type of object or instrument. They are currently being sold with IMSI catchers, which allow users to intercept mobile phone calls and data and they can contain infrared cameras and highly directional microphone arrays to single out noises/conversations. Because of this, the privacy implications of drone use are immense. Given this, what new rules or laws might need to be made?

It’s not just privacy risks: drones operate in the physical world. We’re used to seeing TV News helicopters hovering above to record events including parades and protests. But there are strict rules on helicopters and pilots have codes of conduct they have been trained to follow and a clear incentive to get home safely. What happens in the case of drone collisions or crashes? While the UK TV show Xfactor should be embarrassed about crashing their drone into the Thames in London last month, this was by far the safest option given that it was going out of control over a large crowd. Similarly the UK’s Merseyside Police destroyed their drone by crashing it into the Mersey River. (In the UK you do need a license to use a drone right now; you can see the list of people and organisations licensed here).

A civilian drone films Polish riots from above

The right to use drones as well as drone security and safety are new and evolving issues. As we work out the pros and cons of allowing drone use, privacy and safety implications must be paramount. We have many precedents that show it is possible to allow harmless use of goods that can be potentially very dangerous. There are rules and regulations, for instance, relating to the purchase of fertiliser with an understanding that the amount you need for a farm, an allotment, or a bomb can be differentially managed. There are also laws regulating the use of phone taps to ensure people are not unknowingly having their private calls recorded by other citizens. Good policy sorts out how to deal with risks while not impeding on innovation and opportunities.

While a moral panic about drone use ought be avoided, before we go much further it is important that we ask: who is most at risk of drone abuse and who has most to gain? The time that a drone becomes the must-have Christmas present for teenagers will be a bit late to start  a serious discussion about whether current laws are fit for purpose, or whether new laws are needed to regulate drone use.

My concern is that by this stage drones may have become completely normalised by already empowered organisations, and as a result we may have inadvertently given up some of our privacy rights with uneven consequences for activists and others most at risk of surveillance.


Sam Smith (@smithsamis a technologist who has worked with Privacy International and others. 

Additional Resources:

  • Josh Begley tweeted every drone strike from 2002 – 2013 here @dronestream
  • Paul Wallich designed a drone to follow his son 400m to the bus stop so he could receive real-time footage of his son safely reaching the school bus without his Dad having to accompany him.
  • The next episode of Exposing the Invisible will be on the subject of drones – keep checking the site as it will be uploaded in the next few weeks.