I’ve been following the rise of do it yourself (DIY) drones for a few years now, ever since Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, introduced me to the topic in a podcast. And yes, I’m talking about flying drones… Like those the US Air Force uses to monitor – and attack – enemy forces in Afghanistan. Except, in the case of DIY drones, they are smaller, cheaper, and are being built by a growing legion of hobbyists, companies and enthusiasts all around the world, many of whom are sharing open source UAV plans that can be downloaded off the internet.
You many not know it, but there could be drones in your neighborhood. And this has real implications.
Take, for example, a story that really grabbed my attention a few weeks ago. An animal rights group called SHARK chose to deploy a drone to monitor a live pigeon shoot taking place on private land. It turns out the mere presence of their drone caused the shoot to be cancelled. To begin with, that says a lot of drone’s effectiveness. But what was really interesting was how, in frustration, one or some of the shooters then hid and shot the drone out of the sky.
Think about this.
Here you have a group using what is essentially a mini-helicopter to monitor an activity taking place on what is private property. Then, in response, the other party fires live rounds at the drone and causes it to crash. And all of playing out near a US highway (not a major one, but still, a public road). This is a privacy, legal, and public safety nightmare. The policy and societal implications are significant.
And this is not an isolated use. As the Economist pointed out in its excellent write up on civilian drones in this week’s Quarterly Technology Review, drones are already being used by an environmental group to locate and track Japanese whalers. In the US several police forces already operate drones – including one in Texas which, frighteningly, has the capacity to launch grenades. George Clooney funds a non-profit that uses satellites to monitor Sudan in an effort to prevent atrocities through transparency. Can drones be far behind?
I share all this because, these days, people are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. This will have real impacts.
As my friend Luke C. pointed out the other day, it is entirely conceivable that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. It could also record and save remotely everything that is going on – in order to prevent anyone from harassing or bullying them. It might even remind them to look both ways before crossing the street, in case they forget. Or, because of its high vantage point, it could pick out and warn your child of cyclists and cars they failed to observe. Once your kid is safely at school the drone could whiz home and recharge in time to walk them home at the end of the day. This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents… that would be a lot of drones.
And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods. Or maybe you’ll want one for your elderly parents… just in case something happens to them? It’s be good to be able to pull them up on a live feed, from anywhere.
If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl, a digital pet? Or maybe all of these outcomes? I’m not sure the answer is obvious.
My larger point is that the pressure to create the surveillance society isn’t going to come exclusively from the state. Indeed, we may find ourselves in a surveillance society not because the state demands it, but because we want the tools for our own useful and/or selfish ends. Some people may argue that this may level the playing field between citizens and the state or powerful organizations. I hope that is true. But maybe the mass adoption of such tools will simply normalize surveillance in our society and culture. That might, in turn, make it easier for the state, or other organizations, or just everyone else, to monitor us.
What I do know is that our government, our police forces, our neighborhoods are wholly unprepared for this. That’s okay, they have some time. But it is coming. At some point we will be living in a society where the technology will exist to enable anyone to deploy a drone that can observe anyone else in a public space, and maybe even in a private space. The challenges and complexities for policy makers are significant, and the implications for our communities, probably even more so. Either way it’s going to make many people’s lives a lot more complicated.
Note, I suspect there are typos in this, but it is 2 am and wordpress already deleted the first draft of this post killing a couple hours of work… so my capacity and patience is low. I hope you’ll forgive me a little.