TAP Scholars Ryan Calo and Jonathan Zittrain Debate the Use of Non-Military Drones

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on May 4, 2012

American law-enforcement agencies and civilians are now allowed to request licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use unmanned aircraft known as drones. The uses range from surveillance to wildlife monitoring, as well as for news coverage, mapping, and agricultural applications. (See the Wall Street Journal article, “Drone Use Takes Off on the Home Front” for a list of organizations that have sought to use drones.)
The New York Times “Room for Debate” section asked TAP scholars Ryan Calo and Jonathan Zittrain to participate in its exploration of the use of unmanned aircraft for law enforcement and commercial purposes on American soil. “Drones in Afghanistan, Drones in … Akron?” asked if the government should restrict where drones can fly and film to protect people’s privacy? Or should all Americans assume that if we are outdoors or near a window, we have no privacy?
M. Ryan Calo, Director of Privacy and Robotics at the Stanford Center for Internet & Society, discusses the “Scary, and Useful, Technology” of drones.
Robots are as useful on the home front as in the theater of war, for instance in response to many recent disasters. Robotic submarines helped assess and contain the BP oil spill and search for missing passengers after the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship. … Indifferent to radiation, drones help coordinate the ongoing cleanup of the Fukushima reactor.
The trick for drone advocates will be to harness the potential of drones without frightening or offending American civilians. This is a significant hurdle. Robots make many uncomfortable. We tend to associate drones in particular with armed conflict, even assassination. And drone surveillance will feel different than even the most extensive electronic surveillance.
Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, emphasizes that “These Aren’t Just Toy Planes.”
On its own terms, how worried should we be about civilian use of drones? Moderately. It's too easy to imagine the use as simply sporadic and harmless, such as hobbyists flying drones around the way that they might tinker with model rockets or balcony telescopes. But for better or worse, it's a space for disruptive innovation. People can become recognizable by their unique gaits; anyone walking could be located at a particular place and time. Car license plates can be read, as perhaps could (cracked) toll booth fast pass IDs.
That leads to a private database of who's where and when, limited only by the effort it would take to monitor and interpret the large amounts of data flowing from fleets of drones.
That's no reason to ban civilian drones outright. But we should be under no illusion that it's as simple as “if someone wants to fly around a model airplane with a camera, anyone in sight is fair game.” Because cheap drones will be game changing.