The Ethics Of… Drones

For someone who loves technology, this is an amazing time to be alive. In the last 30 years we’ve gone from rotary phones and directories you could literally kill a man with, to the advent of personal computers, the internet, mobile phones, all culminating in the current generation of smartphone – the power of a computer and access to humanity’s collective knowledge, all in the palm of your hand. It’s the nature of technology that each step actually makes the next step faster, and so it is with the very sudden advent of drones.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of flying robots was science fiction and nothing more. The idea that we could fly tiny cameras around our neighbourhood sounded cool but completely unrealistic, much like hoverboards, robot servants or jetpacks. Sure we’ve had remote controlled aircraft for a long time and the military has been using bomber drones for at least a decade, but the technology wasn’t exactly what you would call user-friendly. More importantly, any decent RC aircraft tended to cost more than your average punter is willing to sink into a machine that stood a very good chance of annihilating itself against a tree because the wind gusted.

Hey, could have been a lot worse.

But then out of nowhere, in the last year or so not only can your average person pick a fully-functional, camera-equipped drone from their local electrical retailer, but they can also control it with reasonable ease from their smartphone or tablet – and you can get started for a less than 150 bucks. Needless to say this sudden availability and affordability of such awesome new tech inspired people to come up with a thousand new uses on the spot. Amazon announced it would use them to make deliveries, recreational and commercial photographers started to get previously impossible shots, surveyors and city planners could suddenly get perfect up-to-date aerial shots cheaply, and some genius even tried to use them to deliver food at cafes.

Still some kinks to iron out, clearly.

Naturally with all this innovation going on with a new technology, there have been more than a few…incidents of varying degrees of hilarity. Drones running out of battery and plummeting into lakes, cutesy fly-in videos gone rogue and kamakazing into wedding parties, a surprisingly high number of animal attacks, and of course, the inevitable flying penises. But generally these are just flaws in a very new technology combined with users getting the hang of it all – exactly what happens every time a new piece of equipment becomes popular (grandparents and touchscreens anyone?).

But while affordable recreational drones have captured the public’s imagination, that shine is starting to wear off. Why? Because people are starting to get past the sheer awesomeness of the tech and are starting to realize what a drone is: a mobile camera that can go virtually anywhere, transmitting video to an unknown location, which nearly anyone can afford and operate. Look past the novelty and suddenly we have a very scary situation on our hands, straight out of a hundred dystopian nightmares. If you were walking down the street and a drone started to follow you, just out of your reach and filming everything you did, what could you do about it?

Seriously, imagine yourself in this now extremely plausible scenario – would you feel comfortable knowing someone was tracking your every move? Filming you and making a permanent record of your actions, which could easily be uploaded to youtube and spread all over the world in seconds? And if you weren’t comfortable with that, well, what are you going to do about it exactly? Run away? The drone is faster than you are. Jump up and try to stop it filming? The drone just hovers a bit higher and keeps on filming. Run inside a building and try to lose it? The drone just needs to hover high enough to watch all the exits and can track you again whenever you leave. And if the operator would rather not spook you in the first place, they could just follow at an inconspicuous height to start with and use a zoom lens.

But let’s say you did manage to catch the spying drone and snap off the camera. Congrats to you for standing up for your privacy! Except that filming or photographing a person in public is (at least in Australia) completely legal… and you just destroyed someone’s private property.

That’s a maximum 5 year sentence right there buddy.

But what the hell, who cares if someone films you in public? There’s nothing stopping them from doing that anyway with normal cameras, camera phones, security cameras, surveillance satellites or good old google street view. It might be annoying, but if you’re just going about your normal life then surely there’s nothing to worry about if some idiot wants to follow you around for some reason. But what about private property? What if someone hovers a drone outside your bedroom window every morning? What if they hang a drone over your house and keep tabs on you? And if they’re willing to sacrifice the equipment, what’s to stop them flying one right into your house and taking a look at your stuff until you take it down? Sure it’s illegal for people to invade your privacy like that, but unless you manage to capture the drone somehow and the owner has been daft enough to leave their identifying information on it somewhere, what exactly are you going to do about it? You can prosecute someone if you don’t know who they are.

This might seem a bit far-fetched, but this exact situation came to a head only last week when a guy in Kentucky, USA shot down a drone that was over his property. The guy’s daughters came in from the backyard and told their Dad a drone was hanging about, he waved at it to piss off, and when it strayed back over his fence he blew it out of the air with a shotgun.

I might not be a fan of their gun laws, but where else would I get these sort of examples from?

Sounds completely justified, right? Someone seriously breaches your privacy with an electronic device, so you take steps to remove the device. The drone is off the ground so you can’t capture it, the operator won’t remove it of his own accord, so you take it out with the tools you have – the guy even deliberately shot directly upwards so there was no risk of accidentally hitting anyone. But as reasonable as that sounds, you have to remember that because drones are new tech this is uncharted legal territory – do you own the airspace above your home? If so, how high up? There’s a few theories on that but no definitive answer because prior to this no one really had a way of violating it. I mean you can’t exactly float over your neighbours fence, and if someone’s hovering a helicopter that low over your house then privacy is the least of your problems.

And besides, is it really reasonable to restrict drones from flying over private property? If you think about it that would make their use impossible in anything other than national parks and beaches – ironic given people are likely going to have more of a problem with you filming them on the beach than nearly anywhere else. Even serious commercial users like photographers and surveyors would constantly run into trouble if they were never allowed to cross over private property, and when you have a moving airborne camera who’s to say what you might accidentally film on the way past? If you take a photo on a public street you’re nearly guaranteed to accidentally include bit of people’s private property and the things happening on them – should the land owners be entitled to destroy your camera as well?

I said NO photos!

But there’s something quite different between a person taking a photo of you with a normal camera and a drone following you about, isn’t there? Because even if someone is completely within their legal rights to take a photo of you in public, at least you can tell them to piss off, demand an explanation, make a scene, or at least photograph them right back. An anonymous hunk of flying plastic doesn’t give you that option, assuming you can catch it in the first place. What we have here is a problem of accountability – specifically that it’s extremely hard, if not impossible to hold a drone operator accountable for why they’re filming you and what they’re using it for, because you have no way of identifying them in the first place.

This is the same problem that we face when it comes to privacy in general, but especially the idea of internet filtering or monitoring: in principle there is nothing wrong with infringing on the privacy of other so long as the information taken is not used to hurt them – the old ‘If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear’ argument. But in practice the situation is a hell of a lot more complicated than that, because A) who exactly decides on what is ‘wrong’ in the first place, and B) if someone does abuse the information they take from us, how can we hold them accountable for this?

If someone hovers a drone over the road out front your house for a week, they are legally in the right. Over the week they will learn nothing they couldn’t have anyway by sitting outside in a van. But whereas you could at least have confronted people in a van, taken down the license number or called the police in that scenario, you have none of those options with a drone – even if the police do come, they face the same problems as you do in removing it. Now if the information gathered over that week is not used maliciously then no harm is really done (apart from creeping you out a bit), but if that information is being gathered to find out when you’re not at home so you can be robbed, we have a very serious problem and there’s no way for you to know and nothing you can do about it.

The sort of details Orwell could only dream of.

Clearly we have a problem here and it is one that we need to come up with an answer for, and soon. While drones are still a novelty at the moment, their usefulness and cheapness means they are not going away any time soon – unless we come up with a way of ensuring some accountability for how they are used it’s only a matter of time before more start getting shot out of the sky, electronically hijacked, captured with butterfly nets or otherwise eliminated. And if no steps are taken to protect the private property of drone operators in turn, then they might just take matters into their own hands…

I wish this was fake.

New technologies will always be coming along, and only thicker and faster as we advance. Establishing ground rules on how we manage these technologies that both protect people from their misuse and their users from reactionary suppression is crucial – mess it up and the technology will be both smothered and abused at the same time as people find ways to sneak around rules that they disagree with. Passive systems such as licensing might be the answer, though that still leaves the problem of accessing the drones in the first place to identify their owners. It should be possible to give authorities the means to capture rogue drones, but then again this is likely to piss of those that distrust the state (justifiably or otherwise). Ultimately this is not a question for me to answer, but rather for experts who know what the options are – but this does not change the need for that discussion to happen and soon.

New technologies cannot be stopped and cannot be suppressed – whether we’re talking about splitting the atom or 3D printing, if the idea has value then people will find a way to get their hands on it. Attempting to suppress new tech inevitably leads to a mess as people who understand it find ways around the ban. But failing to regulate that tech (in an informed and sensible way) also leads to a mess as people abuse it for their own gain, regardless of the harm to others. Balance is what we need and for that balance to be ethically justified it must be informed by the best facts we have available to us – not the from-the-hip ideologies the media and politicians tend to go for. So if you have a strong opinion about this topic – and odds are you will sooner or later – then the first thing you need to ask yourself is not “What do I want?”, but rather “What do I know?”.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Drones

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