drones

Feds Should Ask Tech Innovators to Seek Forgiveness, Not Permission

A fleet of driverless cars designed by Waymo, a project of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is on the roads of Phoenix, Arizona. Last week, Waymo CEO John Krafcik announced that in the coming months the driverless cars will be part of the world’s first autonomous ride-hailing service. The recent news is a milestone in driverless car technology history, and it’s no exaggeration to claim that the technology behind these new cars has the potential to save hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of lives in the coming decades. Sadly, drones, another life-saving technology, have had a tougher time getting off the ground.

Waymo’s cars are not suddenly arriving on the scene. Google has been working on getting a driverless car on the road since 2009, and Waymo has been offering some lucky passengers in the Phoenix area rides since April. However, these cars had a driver at the wheel, just in case. The fleet now driving in Phoenix does not include safety drivers. 

This may prompt unease among some Phoenix residents. A clear majority of Americans are uncomfortable about getting into driverless cars. Yet human drivers are deadly. More than 90 percent of car crashes can be attributed to human error, and motor vehicle accidents killed an estimated 40,200 people on American roads last year.

LAPD Drones Threaten Privacy

Today, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) civilian police commission voted to approve proposed guidelines for a one-year unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) pilot program. According to the LAPD’s guidelines, UAVs will not be equipped with lethal or nonlethal weapons and will only be deployed in a narrow set of circumstances. The guideline also requires officers to obtain a warrant before using a UAV “when required under the Fourth Amendment or other provision of the law.” This looks all well and good, except that the Fourth Amendment and California law provide little protection when it comes to aerial surveillance.

The Fourth Amendment protects “persons, houses, papers, and effects” from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Many Americans could be forgiven for thinking that this constitutional provision would act as a shield against warrantless aerial surveillance. Sadly, this is not the case. California law is similarly of little help. California is not one of the states that require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using a UAV, with Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 vetoing a bill that would have imposed such a requirement.  

To the LAPD’s credit, routine surveillance is not included in its list of approved UAV operations. However, the LAPD has a history of using new surveillance gadgets, and it’s reasonable to be wary of UAVs being regularly used for surveillance as they become an everyday feature of police departments’ toolboxes.

Although the Supreme Court has yet to take up the issue of UAV surveillance, it did address aerial surveillance in a few cases in the 1980s. In Dow Chemical Co v. United States (1986) the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency did not need an administrative warrant when it hired a commercial photographer using a mapping camera to inspect a 2,000 acre Dow Chemical plant from an aircraft.

Cities Seek Police Surveillance Transparency and Oversight

Today, legislative efforts began in eleven cities (see right) aimed at requiring police departments to be more transparent about the surveillance technology they use. The bills will also reportedly propose increased community control over the use of surveillance tools. These efforts, spearheaded by the ACLU and other civil liberty organizations, are important at a time when surveillance technology is improving and is sometimes used without the knowledge or approval of local officials or the public.

Many readers will be familiar with CCTV cameras and wiretap technology, which police use to investigate crimes and gather evidence. Yet there is a wide range of surveillance tools that are less well-known and will become more intrusive as technology advances.

Facial recognition software is already used by some police departments. As this technology improves it will be easier for police to identify citizens, especially if it is used in conjunction with body cameras. But our faces are not our only biometric identifiers. Technology in the near future will make it easier to identify us by analyzing our gait, voice, irises, and ears.

Drones Are a Must For Trump’s Nativist Police State

Yesterday my colleague Alex Nowrasteh wrote an extensive list of reasons why Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee, is the nativist dream candidate. The list leaves little doubt that if Trump makes it to the White House he will seek to violate the Constitution, create a police state, put citizens’ privacy at risk, and build a border wall (despite its estimated $25 billion price tag) all in the name of reducing legal and illegal immigration to the United States.

Trump’s immigration plan ought to worry civil libertarians because, as Alex points out, he supports mandatory E-Verify, the ineffective employment eligibility verification program that puts privacy at risk. Trump’s disregard for effective policy and privacy rights can be seen not only in his views on E-Verify but also his support for 24/7 border drones.

Last month Trump told Syracuse.com that he would order the 24/7 surveillance of the U.S. borders, adding, “I want surveillance for our borders, and the drone has great capabilities for surveillance.”

What Trump might not know is that drones on the U.S. border don’t have a great track record. At the end of 2014 the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General released an audit of the Customs and Border Protection’s Unmanned Aircraft System Program. The program includes MQ -9 Predator B drones (also called “Reapers”), perhaps best known for its combat missions abroad, as well as the Guardian, the Predator B’s maritime variant. The program’s audit was unambiguous:

The program has also not achieved the expected results. Specifically, the unmanned aircraft are not meeting flight hour goals. Although CBP anticipated increased apprehensions of illegal border crossers, a reduction in border surveillance costs, and improvement in the U.S. Border Patrol’s efficiency, we found little or no evidence that CBP met those program expectations.

Unsurprisingly, cartels at the southern border are taking part in an arms race with CBP, using jamming devices on patrol drones. Almost a year after the inspector general’s audit Timothy Bennett, a science-and-technology program manager at the Department of Homeland Security, explained how the cartels hinder CBP operations:

DHS was unable to say just how often smugglers tried to jam or spoof border-watching UAVs. But Bennett said the attacks are hindering law enforcement abilities to map drug routes. “You’re out there looking, trying to find out this path [they’re] going through with drugs, and we can’t get good coordinate systems on it because we’re getting spoofed. That screws up the whole thing. We got to fix that problem,” he said.

The ineffectiveness of drones on the border is not the only concern. CBP drones also pose privacy concerns. Predator B drones carrying out combat missions abroad have been outfitted with Gorgon Stare, a wide-area surveillance technology that allows users to track objects within an area at least 10 square kilometers in size. Almost two years ago it was reported that once incorporated with Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (ARGUS-IS), another wide-area surveillance tool, Gorgon Stare can monitor 100 square kilometers. A video outlining ARGUS-IS’ capabilities is below.

America’s Invisible Wars: Event January 25th

On January 14th, the White House announced that Gen. Joseph Votel - the current head of U.S. Special Operations Command – will take over as the head of U.S. Central Command, a position which will place him in charge of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The symbolism of the appointment could not be clearer. As Foreign Policy noted,

“With 3,000 special operations troops currently hunting down Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and another 200 having just arrived on the ground in Iraq to take part in kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, Votel’s nomination underscores the central role that the elite troops play in the wars that President Barack Obama is preparing to hand off to the next administration.”

The growing use of special operations forces has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, an attempt to thread the needle between growing public opposition to large-scale troop deployments and public demands for the United States to ‘do more’ against terrorist threats, all while dancing around the definition of the phrase ‘boots on the ground.’ But the increasing use of such non-traditional forces – particularly since the start of the Global War on Terror – is also reshaping how we think about U.S. military intervention overseas.

Turbulence Ahead: Domestic Drone Debate Intensifies

National Journal has a new piece out today that highlights the continuing controversy over the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure thus far to publish a final rule governing the operation of drones in domestic airspace (FAA’s current unmanned aerial system (UAS) guidance can be found here). One thing the FAA will not be doing is wading into the commercial sector privacy debate over drones; it has punted that issue to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). But what about federal agencies and their use of UASs?

Federal domestic UAS use has a checkered history.

In December 2014, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General issued a report blasting the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drone program as waste:

  • The unmanned aircraft did not meeting the CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) goal of being airborne 16 hours a day, every day of the year; in FY 2013, the aircraft were airborne 22 percent of the anticipated number of hours.
  • Compared to CBP’s total number of apprehensions, OAM attributed relatively few to unmanned aircraft operations.
  • OAM could not demonstrate that the unmanned aircraft have reduced the cost of border surveillance.
  • OAM expected the unmanned aircraft would be able to respond to motion sensor alerts and thus reduce the need for USBP response, but the IG found few instances of this having occurred.

How Drones Encourage Dumb Wars and Corrode Democratic Government

My article in this week’s Washington Examiner magazine argues that because U.S. wars seem so cheap, they tempt us into making war too casually. I explain that while this tendency isn’t new, recent technology breakthroughs, which allowed the development of drones, have made it worse. We now make war almost like people buy movies or songs online, where low prices and convenience encourage purchase without much debate or consideration of value. I label the phenomenon one-click wars.

If we take occasional drone strikes as a minimum standard, the United States is at war in six countries: Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, with Libya likely to rejoin the list. In the first three, U.S. military action is exclusively the work of drones. Regular U.S. ground forces are present only in Iraq, where they avoid direct combat, and Afghanistan, where they mostly do.

There’s something remarkable in that combination of militarism and restraint. How can we be so willing to make war but so reluctant to take risks in making it?

My explanation starts with power. Wealth, technological prowess, and military might give the United States unique ability to make war around the world. But labor scarcity, liberal values, and our isolated geography that makes the stakes remote  limit our tolerance for sacrificing lives, even foreign ones, in war. This reluctance to bear the human costs of war leads to reliance on long-range technology, especially airpower.

Airpower, despite its historical tendency to fail without help from ground forces, always offers hope that we are only a few bombs away from enemy capitulation. The promise of cheap, clean wars is always alluring. They would let you escape the choice between the bloody sacrifices war entails and the liberal values it offends. 

Drones Risk Putting US on ‘Slippery Slope’ to Perpetual War

As the New York Times reports, the Stimson Center today released a report warning that “the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war.” The Washington Post, the Guardian and Vox all lead their articles on the report with that warning.

The slippery slope point probably isn’t new to most readers. But it’s worth focusing on here, both because the argument is often misstated or misunderstood, and because, in this case, I helped make it. The report’s task force, co-chaired by retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law, included working groups. I was on one that considered, among other things, what danger drones create for U.S. foreign policy. The report largely reflects those we identified: the erosion of sovereignty, blowback from those in targeted countries, drone strikes’ tendency to undermine democratic oversight, and the slippery slope problem.

The report puts those concerns in context. It points out that: drones can serve wise or dumb policies; that most drones are for surveillance or other non-strike uses; and that it is drone strikes that occur off declared battlefields that have generated the most controversy. The report notes that past military innovations, like cruise missiles, raised similar concerns by making waging war easier.

The report rejects several common complaints about drones. It denies that they create a reckless, “playstation mentality” among pilots. It explains that drones are not more prone than other weapons cause civilian casualties.

Having delimited the circumstances where drones raise concerns, the report goes into considerable causal detail, at least compared to most reports of this kind, about what the trouble is. The blowback, oversight, and sovereignty problems are relatively easy to understand, in theory. The tricky part is measuring the harm.

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