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Civilian Drones: Difference Engine - Unblinking Eye In The Sky.

Publication Date: 
January 20, 2012
The Economist

Director of Privacy and Robotics at the Center for Internet and Society Ryan Calo is quoted in the following Economist article on the use of civilian drones.

WHEN drones are used even by environmental activists to track down Japanese whaling vessels, it is a sure sign that UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are no longer the sole prerogative of the military. Police forces around the world are certainly keen to lay their hands on small pilotless aircraft to help them nab fleeing criminals and monitor crime scenes from above. With price tags of a little more (and, in some case, a good deal less) than the $40,000 of a patrol car, a new generation of micro-UAVs is being recruited to replace police helicopters costing $1.7m and up.

And the police are not the only ones eager to take advantage of the technology developed for attacking terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any civilian activity that would be improved by having an aerial view—monitoring traffic, checking electricity cables and pipelines, surveying forestry and crops, taking aerial photographs, patrolling wooded areas for fire—could benefit from the use of UAVs.


In a thoughtful essay published in the Stanford Law Review last month, Ryan Calo of Stanford Law School argues that things could be indeed different this time. “Virtually any robot can engender a certain amount of discomfort, let alone one associated in the mind of the average American with spy operations or targeted killing,” says Mr Calo.

Unlike, say, the National Security Agency’s surveillance network or commercial data brokerages that function secretively in the background, surveillance by civilian authorities is likely to be highly visible. “People would feel observed, how or whether the information was actually used,” Mr Calo notes. The resulting backlash could force the courts, legal scholars and civil-rights activist to re-examine not merely the use of drones, but the actual doctrines that permit their use today.