Drones for good: technological innovations, social movements, and the state.

Author:Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin
Position:Media and Technology

The increased use of and attention to drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have led to a widespread debate about their application. Much of this debate has centered on their use by governments, often for the purpose of surveillance and warfare. This focus on the state's use obscures the opportunity for civil society actors, including social movements, to make use of these technologies. This article briefly reviews the technological innovation before proceeding to a typology of civil society uses, ranging from art to digital disruption. This typology emphasizes the dual-use nature of this technology and, in the process, highlights the need for a best-practices framework to guide such use. Drone usage for the public good, it is argued, should prioritize 1) subsidiarity; 2) physical and material security; 3) the "do no harm" principle; 4) the public good; and respect for 5) privacy, and 6) data. These factors are introduced and discussed.


The recent wave of mobilization and contestation that has swept from Tunisia to Ukraine has run parallel to the emergence of an important technological innovation. (1) While the use of mobile phones and social media has received a large amount of attention, protests in Hong Kong, Ukraine, and even Ferguson, Missouri have seen the emergence of civil society's use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, more commonly, "drones." (2) This innovation represents a technological shift in scale for citizen journalists, human rights advocates, and social movement actors. As such, it requires a sophisticated assessment of the ethical issues and policy terrain surrounding its use.

To date, debates over the use of UAVs have focused on two areas. First, human rights groups have mobilized against the state's use of drone strikes and the killing of civilians in the "War on Terror." Second, policymakers in Europe and the United States have scrambled to regulate the commercial use of drones. However, a critical third segment of drone usage by and for civil society actors, especially social movements, deserves attention.

This article reviews the nascent literature on UAV use and situates it within the larger theory and debates over technology and innovation, ethics, legal rights (including privacy and the right to information), public policy, and human rights. It then applies these considerations to proposed guidelines for the use of UAVs by non-state and non-commercial actors. (3) It concludes by noting the perils and promises of the use of drones for the purpose of investigative journalism, human rights monitoring, and state accountability. (4) The dual interest in the technology by both the state and its challengers points to the promise and peril of innovation.


The promise and peril of UAVs lie at the intersection of three interconnected technological innovations. The first involves a shift from analog to digital devices. This allows for more powerful onboard processors, longer battery life, and the ability to easily stream audio and video to digital consumer devices. Combined with more stable quadcopter designs, these have transferred UAVs from the hobbyist market to the general public. But this shift from analog to digital also covers the payloads these devices carry. While the carrying capacity within consumer devices is modest, they are sufficient to carry cameras, as well as sophisticated signal-jamming equipment, wireless routers, and similar electronic devices. UAVs are an ideal type of innovation, that is, they combine invention with exploitation (by marketing, integrating, and diffusing goods and ideas). (5)

Popular digital imaging devices represent a second technological scale shift, as they generate infinitely portable and reproducible images that can be shared, copied, distributed, and stored with increasing ease and decreasing cost. Combined with the emergence of online environs for storing and sharing images, digital imaging devices have fundamentally disrupted the status quo with regard to journalism, whether for entertainment, such as paparazzi photos of a Hollywood star, or accountability, such as YouTube footage from the Arab Spring.

The third technological innovation, and arguably the most disruptive, is the fundamental break between the camera and the street level. Photography has had a symbiotic connection with the street for more than a century, as far back as Eugene Atget's street photography in Paris in the 1890s and Jacob Riis's documentary photography in New York at the same time. (6) The most memorable photographs of violent conflict, social protest, and natural disaster have almost all been taken by a person present on the ground. The horizontal plane has been the most important space for both the perambulating human and the observant photojournalist. The same can be said of most state surveillance, as well as the increasingly common use of surveillance cameras in commercial centers. The journalist's camera is positioned at eye level. The state and commercial market have placed their devices just out of arm's reach, but both point nearly horizontally.

UAVs relocate the boundary between what is public and what is private, because camera-equipped UAVs move the line of sight from the street to the air. This simple shift effectively pushes public space from the sidewalk to the stairwell, courtyard, rooftop, and so forth. Once private, these spaces are now subject to surveillance. Or have they now become public spaces? Should technologists, ethicists, and public policy professionals simply increase the number and type of locations that are now considered public, or must a more profound conversation occur?

Technology has redrawn the lines between private and public space. Work on the Internet of Things and Internet privacy suggests that much of what happens in seemingly private spaces is not actually private. (7) This increasingly applies to our browsing habits as well as less recognized data passively generated from devices--for instance, my iPhone's accelerometer telling my mobile carrier or insurance provider that I have not jogged in days. UAVs represent a relatively new technology, or rather, a newly applied technology, that is disrupting our understanding of which spaces are private.

Ubiquitous closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs) represented the vanguard of this change, since they opened sidewalks, parks, and other public spaces to sustained and archived monitoring by commercial interests and law enforcement. When the feed from CCTVs went to tape, the question essentially involved privacy. When the feed now goes to digital archives, subject to hacking and scanning, the privacy issue has grown immeasurably. Digital archives of street surveillance footage, combined with facial recognition and behavioral software, push the privacy issue even further.

While these observations seem pedestrian at first blush, their implications are profound. Security and privacy policies address the prying eyes of the standing observer, not the roving airborne eye of a small UAV that is flying according to Global Positioning System (GPS) waypoints while streaming video over secure Wi-Fi to an operator sitting behind a laptop in a nearby cafe, library, or office complex. "Open air" and "free space" are no longer as "open" or "free" as they once were. They are instead now occupied or vulnerable to occupation. Cyberspace scholars suggest that new technologies are pivotal in "radically restructuring the materiality and spatiality of space." (8) Whether this space is used for the public good or as a means of state and commercial surveillance is just the sort of dilemma regulators face. Cyber-skeptics fear the panopticon, believing "[a] society biased toward hierarchy and capitalism generates the entirely rational impetus for ... surveillance." (9) Others argue for a contrast between libertarian and authoritarian technologies where the former is egalitarian, and the latter is "fundamentally hegemonic." (10) If Predator drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen represent challenges to notions of sovereignty, camera-equipped civilian UAVs in London and New York represent fundamental challenges to the notion of public space.

For some time, radical geographers have thought about space as it relates to power, politics, and change while technologists focus on the promise and peril of new technology. These two have met in the literature about the Internet. (11) Scholars of online worlds focus on the Internet as a disruptive new space, but UAVs disrupt the actually occurring material and physical space we inhabit every day. This applies to hard security as well as privacy. The walls and barricades around terrorist training camps, Occupy gatherings, and Davos meetings belong to a world of line-of-sight threats from paparazzi and pipe bombs. The United States has reinforced many embassies over the past decade with moats, ramparts, walls, and bulletproof glass. (12) Industry standard protection from an explosives-laden truck, however, is generally useless against a commercially available drone carrying toxic chemicals with an aerosol dispersant flying too close to an air intake inside a military compound. Innovation of this sort is a hallmark of asymmetrical warfare. (13)

Debates between technophiles and techno-skeptics, and the scale shifts indicated above, resonate in a complex thicket of ethical and legal considerations. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has attempted to restrict all commercial use of drones, despite questions about their authority to do so. (14) Clearly, UAVs equipped with imaging devices also operate in a cultural, political, and technological environment charged with debates over citizen rights in an age of mobile telephony, citizen journalism, and ubiquitous surveillance. The debates over emerging big data capabilities to harness the data generated by these sources are only now emerging. (15) As societies grapple...

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