Drone Proliferation

by zunguzungu

A propos of yesterday’s NYT article on microdrones, see this from the Boston Review “Robocop: Drones at Home“:

[A]s Langdon Winner shows in his classic 1986 book, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, technologies are inherently political, tied to relations of power and authority. Because technologies don’t exist in a social vacuum, they are not mere tools. They become integrated in social systems and everyday life, “part of our very humanity.” As such, their uses tend to reflect the priorities of a society’s dominant forces.

It is thus hardly surprising that the NIJ sells local police on UAVs not only by touting their value in search-and-rescue operations, but also in marijuana eradication and narcotics interception. What they don’t talk about—so as not to scare off the public—are speeding tickets, Adelman says.

So while Miller hopes to use UAVs in Mesa County for rescuing lost children, much of law enforcement UAV deployment most likely will dovetail with Washington’s interlocking wars on drugs, terrorism, and “illegal” immigrants, with all of the disturbing implications for civil and human rights those projects entail. The inevitable coupling of UAVs to these “wars,” combined with insufficient accountability mechanisms, is a recipe both for the normalization of previously unacceptable levels of policing and for official abuse. This past September, for instance, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell was forced to apologize after revelations that a private “counter-terrorism” corporation contracted by the state’s Office of Homeland Security had been spying on antiwar and pro-immigrant activists and environmentalists organizing against natural gas drilling.


…the very availability of UAV’s can increase the likelihood of warfare. At a sparsely attended session on ethics at the Denver show, Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England, spoke to this matter. Sharkey agreed that UAVs are more precise. Using one for a targeted killing, he pointed out, is a lot better than carpet-bombing an area. At the same time, Sharkey noted, their accuracy is somewhat illusory—targets are often in buildings, and targeting relies on frequently faulty intelligence. And the weight placed on precision obfuscates international legal concerns: UAV strikes don’t allow for due process or surrender.

UAVs permit Washington to do things it otherwise wouldn’t. A recently retired CIA operative told Sharkey that, without UAVs, the military wouldn’t be able to attack targets in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. For Sharkey, this shows that robots are not simply an innovation in weapons. Rather, they create totally new ways to wage war. Robots lead to such asymmetry that war becomes increasingly like terrorism. In the case of the United States, the reduced risk to American soldiers means that public opposition to war will also decrease. In this regard, UAVs are in the long run war-enabling—hardly a recipe for saving lives.