The Drone Problem: Restriction Can’t Make Technology Less Scary

Drones.  It's a huge topic, but this article by the ACLU does a great job with its major points and substantive links-for-more-info.  (That's also a real, researched article; and this is a blog post; so compare accordingly.)

My own take on drones — which are little remote-controlled (or even self-controlled, to various degrees) flying machines that surveil and otherwise interact with people by proxy for their owners — isn't one I come across in my reading all that often, so I wanted to get it written down.  I actually developed this opinion as a result of researching and planning one of the novels I've tried to write*.

We live in a technological world.  In a technological world, one value matters above all:  Who has that technology?

There's often an argument made that technology should be restricted, and it's often phrased as though putting a "NO" label on some technology will stop it from happening.  In fact, all it does is limit who will have it.  People are like crows — they spread knowledge once they have it, and all disallowing it does is limit its use to the people who are willing to do disallowed things

And while criminals are scary, they also usually don't have the kind of resources that the other major group of people who are willing to do disallowed things does — that group of people being, of course, the ones with authority, who share with criminals the perception that they won't be punished for violating the rules.  Technology takes resources, and what drug-dealers, sex offenders, or burglars could do with permission to use drones pales, I think, in comparison to the havoc a government or a police-force could wreak with the same ability.  

The thing is, if you restrict drone technology (as a whole, I mean; not just "making it illegal for anybody to put a laser-gun on one" type of restriction), you:

  • make it impossible for law-abiding citizens and citizen groups to use it.  
  • You may make it more difficult for criminals to use it.  
  • You will make it at best only marginally more difficult for governments and police to use it — especially since technology is global, but restrictions are not; even perfect compliance with US law by US government and police agencies (which, come on, hahahaha) — still doesn't protect US citizens from Russian, North Korean, Saudi, or other drones.  

The law-abiding citizens, the ones who need and deserve protection from the misuse of technologies — and drones are definitely a technology that can easily be horribly misused — are not only not well-served by restrictions; arguably they're the ones most hindered by them.

So who and what can protect law-abiding US citizens from rampant surveillance by, and even attack from, drones, whether piloted by our own police, homegrown (or corporate!) mafia, our own increasingly overzealous government, or agencies aligned with unfriendly countries and foreign criminals?  

The answer is pretty clear, isn't it?  Other law-abiding citizens.  Specifically, ones who understand the technology, and can create it, improve it, and keep it and ways to circumvent it safely IN the hands of the people who a) are least likely to hurt others with it and b) need it to protect themselves from abuses by it.

Who can invent, create, spread and use the technology to protect innocent people from unlawful surveillance and attack?

Who can ensure that the information captured by surveillance technology is fair and honest, and that its capture wasn't in violation of civil rights laws?

Who can make sure that the people with money and power and willingness to break the rules are held accountable for their actions, by making sure they're just as surveilled as everyone else?

Yeah.  PEOPLE can.  Makers can.  Students can.  Garage-DIYers and kids and hobbyists and private engineers can.  Those are the people who can and will put drone technology to use to protect the innocent, to enforce the constitution, to catch the criminals — both the low and highbrow kind — and to defend themselves and their neighbors from the many threats that drones can pose if they're controlled exclusively by the wrong kind of people.  

(The argument will be made:  But it's the authority-figures' jobs to protect innocent people.  Citizens should just never think about it, and leave it in the hands of their cops and their lawmakers and all will be well.  And while I personally find it hard to justify that response with a straight-faced answer, I will give this one anyway:  The argument so often made to citizens is that if we have nothing to hide, then we won't object to being surveilled.  That argument goes both ways and then some, since the cops and the lawmakers are being paid by the people to work for the people — what should they ever have, or be allowed, to hide?  Their rights to privacy are not only the same as everyone else's, but less, since the rest of us aren't working publicly-accountable jobs.  And ditto for anything else that they're allowed to use drones to do to the citizenry; I fail to see why the citizenry shouldn't be allowed to do the same things right back.)

Police-states.  War and invasion.  Criminal overlords.  Corruption and fear.  Corporations have no interest in preventing such things — there's no money in it, plain and simple — and governments only care insofar as it's not their own power being usurped.  (Neither of those are judgments; they're just facts about how corporations and governments work.)  But people care.  People care about their neighborhoods, about their bosses, about the police who pull them over and the adults minding their kids and the gangs on their streets and the judges running their courts.  People are the ones who will use those drones to watch the people who need watching, especially as those people gain ever more power to watch the people, and to remote-control their interactions via little helicopters.

The little helicopters are coming — no, they're here — and trying to outlaw them or stop them is just stupid; it's a reaction based on fear and all it will accomplish is to make the reality of things much worse.  What needs to happen, and quickly, is to protect the right of the people to build, keep, and use those copters, because it's from law-abiding citizens that all the good uses for them will come.  

And there are such good uses!  Even beyond watching the watchers and protecting the innocent from abuse by authorities and criminals.  I think that, like the telephone, which in the early days was thought to be a useless or frivolous-at-best invention, the really cool uses for the drones have barely begun to percolate through the makerspaces, and could change the whole world vastly for the better when the technology gets more momentum.

Think of a world where only authority-figures and criminals could use telephones.  (Actually, that'd be a cool sci-fi dystopia, hmm.)  Think of how much power they'd have that ordinary law-abiding citizens were prevented from using…think about if gangs could call their dealers, and corrupt politicians could call their lobbyists, and terrorists could call their bosses, but it was illegal for you to call your neighbors for help or call the media to give them a tip.  That's the level of power differential we risk if the fear-based gut-reaction to the little helicopters is allowed to take over, and regulations and restrictions come into play that prevent engineers and makers and schoolkids from using and making drones.  And this may seem like a premature warning to some people, but on that you'll just have to trust me — it isn't.  The technology is in the wild-and-wooly state now, where the materials are cheap enough that most people can use them, and the people with a lot of resources are just starting to use the bloody hell out of them, and for more and more extreme things.  Restrictions on what governments can do, in warfare, in surveillance operations, etc. are definitely coming; and the danger — the biggest danger, if you ask me — is that the next step will be to restrict the citizenry from having and using the technology, using fear-based arguments about nameless "bad guys" who might do bad things.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be rules (and if you're such a simplistic thinker that you figured I was, um, why are you even reading this?).  There are rules for using telephones, and obviously-bad things that nobody is allowed to do with them; and that makes sense.  It's access to the technology that needs to be protected from restrictions.

Remember, then, that what enables unfairly bad technology is unfairly huge resources:  And in that arena, it's the big corporations and the governments that we'd better worry about.  As long as the rest of the field is open, the criminal element won't have any real advantage over the law-abiding citizens (and will, in fact, have several important disadvantages, which are apparent enough with a little thought that I won't go into them here).  And remember that criminality is, among those with the usual amount of resources, not the norm:  Other things get done with technology at a far higher rate than criminal things, even if the media is terrible at accurately portraying that ratio.  

If regular, awesome people can build and use their little helicopters, both to protect themselves and their rights, and for all the cool shit regular awesome people typically think of, then I think drones could be the beginning of a seriously awesome revolution.


*I'm always trying to write novels, and sometimes finishing them and throwing them out — my dream is to one day write one of them to my satisfaction!  I have three stories that really need to happen eventually, and one of them concerns the drone/privacy revolution and the fight over who gets access to that technology, and what they use it for.

About puredoxyk

Word addict, kungfu/taiji nut, and life-partner to polyphasic sleep. Rabid fan of as many hobbies as the world will let me pry into its piddly fourth dimension (it helps to have knocked out the fourth wall).
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One Response to The Drone Problem: Restriction Can’t Make Technology Less Scary

  1. Seph says:

    Question: could the same reasoning not be applied to argue that restrictions should not be imposed on laser-gun-equipped drones? Or for that matter ebola virus, or nuclear weapons? I do think that there is a distinction there, but it's difficult to be certain what it is. It may come down to the fact that drones qua drones have legitimate uses for civilians in a way that laser drones don't necessarily, or it may be a simple case of an arbitrary line in the sand.

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