No, this is not about certain less than courageous senior bureaucrats who define the public interest solely in terms of assisting politicians to save their skins at the ballot box: it is engaging you on the threats to society posed by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), to use the approved TLA (three letter acronym).
The use of UAVs or drones, which not only fly but can be submersible or land-based, is continuing to expand mightily. UAV technology is proving very attractive to governments, especially for remotely-controlled attacks and covert surveillance, as the drone pilot is comfortably located at a home base with no exposure to personal danger such as injury or capture on the battlefield.
The US Air Force has considered bravery awards for drone pilots, even if they are merely stationed at a desk with computer monitor and joystick drinking soda, and return home to their families, blinking in the sudden outdoors sunlight, after every shift.
Many suppliers in the defence and security aerospace sector are dedicating significant resources to expanding their presence in the burgeoning drone market. The models and types of drones, and their payloads, capabilities and sensor technology, are becoming more varied. Additional drone capabilities also increase the range of tasks they can perform, including morally and legally questionable uses such as extra-judicial execution of non-combatants in the various pursuits known collectively as the “war” on terror.
Drones are now configured with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and laser guided bombs. As well as armaments, sensors including closed circuit television cameras, infra red detection, and acoustic…and radar can be fitted for surveillance. Widely available, inexpensive ‘’hobby’’ drones now come equipped with high resolution cameras able to stream live video back to the operator or pilot, and to digitally record images. Artificial intelligence has potential for armed drones to make independent decisions based on computer algorithms, with no human intervention.
‘’Outsourcing’’ such decisions must be prevented, and governments must be held directly accountable for the use, and abuse, of such technology.
The market for drone technology is predicted to exceed $27.5 billion annually by 2022. As drones are a new weaponry and surveillance threat, predictably the threat must be countered with anti-drone drones: that market is expected to represent sales of $1.5 billion by 2022.
The Australian Government, through the Air 7000 defence capability plan but also for tasks such as border protection and surveillance, is committed to increasing the use of drones, with seven MQ-4C Triton models featuring a wingspan of almost 40 metres and 28-hour flying time slated for acquisition.
New technology creates opportunities, but also new threats, including hacking or spoofing of drone command and control protocols to divert them from the assigned mission.
As with all technology, drones have no moral or ethical values or beliefs. Drones can be used for beneficial purposes, such as delivering books or pizza, or to wage war, commit murder, and spy.
The performance and uses of the hardware, firmware and software are dictated by the weakest link, namely the “wetware” (human operators), reinforcing the old cynical observation ‘’what is the most dangerous part of a car? The nut behind the wheel’’.
The social, ethical, legal and regulatory framework is scrambling to keep pace with drone technology, and will require sustained attention to avoid extremely unwelcome and undesirable consequences, akin to the rise of the machines foretold in science fiction (e.g. the Terminator movies).
The drone technology, and wide availability at relatively low cost, has potential to create a society where citizens conduct their daily business inside the equivalent of a giant eye, or ear, especially when combined with other intrusive technology such as the indiscriminate capture of metadata from computer networks by authorities who claim to be protecting us, but are in actuality treating all citizens as potential suspects.
The use and regulation of drones has important and salient potential adverse implications for civil liberties and privacy, and abuse and misuse must be prevented. This poses a major challenge for legislators and regulators, and will require sustained vigilance, given the proven tendency of governments across the globe to display no hesitation when introducing draconian provisions to limit civil liberties and freedom, claiming we will be safe and protected.
In reality, the greatest threat to civil liberties and freedom are governments who believe citizens exist to serve them, not vice versa. This truism is well illustrated by dictatorial campaigns to tax and ban behaviour disapproved by elites, and predictable mission creep (for example, why is police-security metadata provided to organisations such as the RSPCA?)
Those in power would do well to remember that an ethical and fair approach would involve rejecting the adage that the entire aim of practical politics is to create a series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary, so the population clamours to be led to safety (with thanks to H L Mencken) when considering further encroachments on personal freedom using technology such as drones.
To reverse the catchphrase of the Borg from Star Trek, resistance is not futile.