“That’s an odd little plane,” a voice is heard saying.
The video is supposed evidence of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles—the same kind of remote-controlled devices that watch and attack U.S. enemies abroad—to observe the expected protests at the meeting of world leaders.
Several Chicago news outlets picked up on the mysterious video but nobody seemed to be able to explain exactly where it came from, what it depicts, and whether or not the video has any basis in reality. In fact, Slate puts forth some reasons to think it’s a fake.
However real or unreal it is, the video is reflective of a curious evolution in the public discourse over the use of drones.
Drones are approaching a mythical level, if they’re not there already. Not unlike the UFO craze of the 1950s and 60s, they have established themselves as part of collective consciousness–functioning as a sort of shorthand for military secrecy and Big Brother fascist states.
Is this the future? Should we expect more videos of supposed drone sightings in the U.S. like this one? Is this our generation’s grainy home videos of Big Foot or the Loch Ness monster?
We read about them in the paper and see DOD-approved stock footage of them on T.V., but so few officials talk about them and so few regular Americans have ever seen them first-hand. They might as well as be winged, faceless beasts that shoot down fire from on high in faraway lands.
The mere look of the drones invites conspiratorial fascination.
Our eyes expect what we’ve seen all our lives: a door and windows behind which sits a smiling pilot. Passenger jets carry a friendly demeanor that we can almost anthropomorphize—the windows into eyes and the cone tip into a nose and mouth.
But a drone is a disembodied pair of eyes in the sky. There are no signs of human life in this machine, despite the fact that behind its vanilla appearance is a living and breathing human hundreds or thousands of miles away. The expressionless face is a jarring reflection of a strange, anonymous voyeurism and is rich with cognitive dissonance—where are the windows for the pilot to look out?
The rise of drones
Much ink has been spilled over the military’s and the CIA’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles, to observe, attack and kill targeted threats abroad. Numerous human rights groups and journalists have pointed to ethical and legal questions raised by these attacks, including the killing of innocent civilians.
Throughout his time in office, President Obama has quietly expanded the use of remotely piloted aircraft–increasing the number of strikes in Pakistan, authorizing the killing of an American citizen in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, and allowing the use of strikes even when the identity of the target is unconfirmed.
Administration officials defend the attacks, saying that drones offer an unprecedented level of accuracy and endurance in the campaign to cripple the Al Qaeda network, and that they allow them to operate in ungoverned territories where U.S. soldiers and spies can’t.
For many Americans, it’s an easy argument to digest. In a February Washington Post-ABC News poll 83 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s drone policy.
What’s not to like about a technology that kills our enemies and, in the process, removes U.S. troops from harm’s way? From a distance, it’s a win-win situation if there ever was one.
But the technology is still relatively new. Despite the litany of articles and policy papers on the subject, it’s fair to say that as a nation, we’re still not totally sure what to make of the faceless robots patrolling the skies above Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. The American public has little, if any, first-hand experience with them yet.
The key word is “yet.”
The drones come home
Over the past six months or so, the conversation surrounding drones has taken a curious turn inward as groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have pressured the Obama administration to provide information on the domestic use of drones.
Version 2.0 of the drone discussion, it seems, will center on the legal and ethical questions of turning the gaze of unmanned vehicles back on our own populace.
For years drones have been used by the Customs and Border Protection agency to monitor U.S. borders and, more recently, rural police departments have adopted drones as a cheaper and more nimble alternative to surveillance helicopters.
Privacy experts say the low cost of the vehicles combined with pressure from powerful interest groups on the FAA to relax regulations could lead to the commonplace use of drones by domestic entities across the country.
On Valentine’s Day 2012, President Obama signed the FAA Reauthorization Act which privacy advocates say will lead to a dramatic increase of public and private entities operating unmanned vehicles in U.S. airspace.
The FAA itself has expressed a vision of the future in which unmanned crafts are not an unusual sight above American towns and cities.
“The FAA expects small UASs to experience the greatest near-term growth in civil and commercial operations because of their versatility and relatively low initial cost and operating expenses,” according to an FAA fact sheet published in 2010.
In 2009, the FAA issued 146 Certificate of Authorizations–permits that allow public institutions to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle in civil airspace. A year later that number had more than doubled.
In their fiscal year 2011-2031 Aerospace Forecast report, the FAA projected a fleet of 30,000 unmanned aircrafts in U.S. skies by 2030.
The FAA shed some light onto exactly what kinds of agencies are getting these kinds of permits after pressure from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.
Roughly 60 entities, ranging from local law enforcement operations to federal agencies to universities, make up the list. What the list doesn’t tell us, is what kind of vehicles these institutions are flying and for what purpose.
A mixed bag
Of course, not all is nefarious here. Like any new technology, drones can be as beneficial to society as they are potentially menacing.
John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA, is concerned about the privacy risks associated with drones but acknowledges the benefits of unmanned flight.
“Most of us would agree that on balance the Internet is good but that doesn’t mean there aren’t cyber criminals who use the internet to steal credit card numbers and make fraudulent purchases,” he says. “UAVs are in that sense similar to other technologies in that they can be used well and can be misused.”
Productive uses of drones include life-saving observations that lead to the release of innocent victims in hostage situations, Villasenor says. Hazardous environments like nuclear meltdowns are further examples of when robotic planes can minimize human exposure to dangerous situations. The manufacture of drones, Villasenor points out, also leads to job creation.
But the question still lingers. Are we are ready to accept, ethically or legally, the widespread use of unmanned aerial observation in our own skies?
Villasenor has his doubts and worries that the law is slow to keep up with the quickly advancing technologies.
“Today the legal framework would probably be that it’s not different from a helicopter,” Villasenor says. “But the question is, ‘is that legal framework still sufficiently protective if instead of costing $100,000 or $500,000 the machine to do overhead surveillance costs $500 and therefore is in the hands of many more people?’” he says.
Of equal intrigue is what will happen to our popular perception of drones if their presence is increasingly felt on U.S. soil. With the bitter taste of our own medicine in our mouths, will we feel more sympathy towards the Pakistanis and Yemenis fighting our reliance on them overseas?
Can future administrations expect as high of a drone approval rating as Obama has enjoyed?
After all, there’s nothing quite as ominous as being watched by something you cannot see.