CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen has an updated op-ed out this week in which he delicately dances around the question of when and how we are going to regulate the use of drones. He begins by reminding us all that a drone just landed on the White House grounds this week, and that the devastating power of the little flying wonders has been on display in terrorist held regions by our own government for years. So when, oh when, will we have a serious national discussion about how to shut this menace down?
According to a count by New America, some 80 countries have some kind of drone capability, but few of them have succeeded in arming their drones.
The United States’ aggressive and secretive drone campaign against al Qaeda and its affiliates in countries such as Yemen appears to be setting a powerful international precedent about the use of armed drones.
Despite this fact, there has been virtually no substantive public discussion about what an international legal framework governing such drone attacks should be among policymakers at the international level. It’s long past due for that conversation to happen.
Perhaps a drone landing inside the White House perimeter will help precipitate a wider discussion about how we might prevent a future drone flying into the White House grounds, one that might actually be armed.
Despite the fact that Bergen admits precisely what a technical challenge it is to arm a drone in a way that makes it significantly dangerous, this sort of argument conflates two very different types of technology and the uses to which it can be put. The military drones which have been taking out terrorists are essentially miniature jet planes with remote control pilots commanding them from a full fighter console. The average citizen is not going to get their hands on one, and if the terrorists do, well… they’re already essentially an army at war with us anyway.
The drone that crash landed at the White House was the sort you might see flying around your neighborhood. Yes, you might be able to rig one to do a little damage, but I’m not hearing anyone warning us that they have the load capability to fire missiles or pack a significant amount of explosives. People are expressing concerns about their use by snoops wishing to photograph things they shouldn’t be seeing, but that’s another issue.
I remember a short science fiction story from some years back (wish I could remember the name) about a scientist who invented a teleportation device which basically looked like a picture frame. A big enough one could be used by a person to walk through to another location. A small one could be used for instant package delivery. Despite the amazing advance in science this represented, the government immediately confiscated his equipment, arrested him and banned the technology. It could too easily be used to unleash havoc on society, at least according to the government’s logic.
The drone question was inevitable because of government’s unflinching instinct to regulate. If we’re talking about military drones, that question should be settled already. Much like a fighter jet, they won’t be for sale to private citizens. Governments will use them (with the United States looking fairly hypocritical if they try to outlaw their use) and terrorists will pick them up as well, presenting a new challenge. But when it comes to small drones available for public use, the genie is already out of the bottle. Anything this amazingly useful (not to mention cool) was bound to be applied for mischief or the purposes of criminals. That doesn’t mean we turn our backs on it. Law enforcement will adapt and people will incorporate these devices into their lives.
We shouldn’t allow the government to immediately give way to their base instinct to restrict technology and try to stop progress. Let the FAA regulate drone flights where they will endanger people and prosecute those who violate the law. Other than that, let’s all get our drone on.