Drones Trail a Whole Host of Dilemmas – Ethical and Otherwise – in Their Wake

DroneIn a recent column at Foreign Policy in Focus, Conn Hallinan used the image of Pandora’s box to illustrate the limitless outpouring of problems that drones present. Most of the concern over drones revolves around, abroad, the deaths of innocents (not to mention the dubious ethics and legality of assassinations anywhere), and, on the home front, surveillance. But, in a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article titled Which drone future will Americans choose?, Hugh Gusterson outlines issues often gone unnoticed.

For instance, no other state uses weaponized drones. (Currently, Gusterson explains, Britain and Israel are the only other states in possession of them.) Hasn’t it ever occurred to anyone that if states such as Russia and China develop or acquire them, they might use them as we do? Gusterson:

If they decide to use their own drones outside the boundaries of international law against people they brand “terrorists,” the United States will hardly be in a position to condemn them or counsel restraint.

Even worse, regarding autonomous weaponized drones that can target and launch missiles on their own:

While one can imagine the short-term military advantages in deploying such machines, will the world be better off when several countries have unleashed autonomous flying robots with a license to kill?

The above instances are proliferation issues, as with nuclear weapons. Here’s another fear drones, in common with nuclear weapons, incite.

Given that drones are relatively cheap and easy to make, often with off-the-shelf technology, it is probably only a matter of time before Americans are attacked on American soil by terrorist drones. It’s easy to see the dismal possibilities here: Attackers could fly bomb-laden drones into skyscrapers, shopping malls, jumbo jets, airports, or power plants; and they could fly drones equipped with chemical or biological weapons over sports games.

Acquiring nuclear weapons may be a long shot for terrorists, but the odds that they (or mass murderers) could get their hands on weaponized drones are much less weighted against them.

A fourth fear: domestic drone use by the authorities might turn out to be more than surveillance.

Police departments are beginning to acquire drones for crowd surveillance and criminal pursuit, and the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, which owns ten, has considered arming them with “non-lethal weapons.” Quite apart from the fact that “non-lethal weapons” sometimes turn out to be lethal after all, this is a slippery slope.

Meanwhile, at the Magazine, Eli Sanders wrote a comprehensive piece (I read it while it wasn’t barred by a paywall, as it is now) about the inevitability of drones. For those of you who think there are laws protecting us against their domestic use for surveillance, think again. Sanders:

“You have to acknowledge in this day and age that stuff flies over your house,” Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in robotics and the law, told me. … Calo notes that airplanes can already fly over anyone’s house without permission. No one balks at that, and if the autopilot is engaged on a commercial or private aircraft, it is essentially a drone. [! ― RW]


“There are lots of doctrines that say you can look into someone’s backyard from the air,” Calo said.

Sanders explains that Calo has been watching two Supreme Court cases about contraband-sniffing dogs “because of a technology that’s coming: police drones that can ‘sniff’ the air for tracers of chemicals associated with illegal drugs.” Bet you didn’t see that coming. See what I mean about the whole host of issues that drones raise that we don’t commonly think about? But many don’t care. Sanders again.

Although every age group in [a recent] poll showed strong majorities opposed to using drones to issue speeding tickets, [the18 to 29] demographic had the most people in favor of this idea ― and nearly the fewest opposite it. … When I heard this, I thought of [a] USC student who’d asked me at the competition, “What are you doing in your backyard that someone would want to spy on you about?”

Note to Eli Sanders: anecdotal evidence suggests this reaction is common among Americans of all ages. Sanders on its implication:

It’s a view that transforms worry about drones into something close to an admission of guilt.

Perhaps for that reason, it’s equally difficult to evoke outrage on the part of Americans about NSA surveillance. Even the far right’s response ― “I’ll shoot it out of the sky if it goes over my property” ― is infinitely more emotionally healthy.

Coming full circle to weaponized drone use overseas, Sanders explains what may be the number-one liability of drones in general (emphasis added).

… the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, said in January that having the drone-strike option “can lower the threshold for decision-making to take action” ― because both the remote operator and the remote decision-maker have fewer factors inhibiting a destructive impulse.