Should we be worried about the planned introduction of surveillance drones into our daily lives?
The European Commission Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Panel recently met at the Ecole Royale Militaire, Brussels, to discuss using UAS – otherwise known as drones – in civilian settings in the future.
The European Union already uses satellites to monitor farmers’ compliance with farmer subsidies regulations, and check claims where some doubt exists as to their eligibility. Drones are currently under review.
According to the UK’s Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which handles subsidy claims, using remote technology to monitor farmland reduces visitation costs by more than half – from £310 to £115. And, the European Commission claims, it has reduced infringements.
Now officials and manufacturers are looking to branch out. The UAS Panel’s discussion booklet believes drones could be used in monitoring borders, combating drug trafficking and illegal immigration, or for use in rescue and disaster operations. The document says:
A civil/military approach for the coordinated R&D [research and development] (covering dual use UAS for e.g. reconnaissance, surveillance and communications) presents a significant opportunity for Member States and for the Union to address both civil and military capability needs in a coordinated, financially effective and efficient approach to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.
Time will tell how much of this comes true – some insiders believe it won’t be until 2012 that the EU negotiates supranational drone-friendly airspace.
In spite of this the UAS industry has already launched a comprehensive public relations campaign to change its “spy in the sky.” But it seems sensible to assume the majority of “civilian” drones will be used for surveillance and security.
So should we be worried?
After all, this comes only two months after Wikileaks released 287 files revealing the extent of what Julian Assange called the “international mass surveillance industry.” The so-called “Spy Files” showed how private companies develop and sell surveillance technology to dictatorial regimes abroad and intelligence services at home. British companies (like BAE Systems, drone-manufacturers themselves) have already been implicated selling hacking equipment to Syria and Iran.
But in some settings, technology – like UAS – could probably work. Used properly, it could save lives in rescue operations and natural disasters, to locate people on the ground and deploy emergency services more accurately and quickly. In a “security” capacity, drones could find, and pursue, criminals from 20,000 feet – invisible from the ground.
The question that needs to be asked here is: just because we have this technology, does that mean we should use it?
Tom Rollins is a freelance journalist originally from Yorkshire, now based in London, writing about neo-imperialism, the Left and international relations. Don’t mention Brian Sewell. Read his blog Enlightenment Blues, or follow him on Twitter @TRollins88