Eyes in the sky 1 – goodbye privacy

Don't look upOccasionally of an evening, I like to stand in my garden and look up at the night sky. Viewing the stars and constellations gives a sense of perspective on the preoccupations of daily life.

Lately however my viewing has been somewhat distracted. The sheer number of aerial vehicles navigating the airspace south-east of Brussels gives me cause to wonder about flying routes. Sometimes as many as seven or eight aircraft are visible at the same time, spread across the night sky.

Brussels airport must be busy, I think. Except these aircraft seem to be operating a grid pattern across the sky rather than following a recognisable approach or take-off course. I suppose it all depends on the wind direction …

UAVs to mushroom in number

So I wonder how it’s going to work when these aircraft are added to by numbers of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or robot aircraft, as the European Commission plans to encourage in a new missive. [1]

To date these UAVs, or drones, may not be flown in European airspace without a special licence. However the Commission plans to open European civil airspace to unmanned aircraft by 2016. This after US President Obama announced earlier in 2012 that US skies should be open to drones by 2015.

Increasing research in both the public and private sector is going into finding civil applications for UAV technologies. Originally developed for the military, drones have proved especially adept at aerial surveillance. Now, civilian applications in this field are being promoted as a promising new market sector.

Who is pushing for the use of these machines? EU national governments, we are told. But what is driving their thinking? Perhaps a good question to ask is – who stands to gain?

The obvious beneficiaries of improved surveillance are the police and security services, one of them accountable, the other less so. Both like the idea of a high-tech surveillance capability that is powerful and cheaper than manned aircraft. Add to that the fact that some of these vehicles can do vertical take-off and take no more space than a large model plane, and the attractions become compelling.

Which is why the defence and security sectors are actively pushing this promising new market. A recent study by the US-based Teal Group predicted that some 3,328 UAVs would be produced globally in 2009, and 28,658 drones by 2018. [2]

How do you feel about the overhead eye?

The question no-one seems to be asking is, “how do Mr and Mrs Public feel about it?” If you live near major road junctions close to a capital city, then the familiar thumping sound overhead from a police helicopter is becoming a commonplace. No-one particularly likes it, but we assume the inconvenience is necessary to help catch a wanted offender.

Hearing a police helicopter above is one thing. But suppose that occasional disturbance was to become a constant, invisible and inaudible presence – the silent, robotic camera on permanent station overhead looking down at you.

Constant because the latest generation of UAVs are able to remain flying for days at a time. While UAV developers are working to extend that time to weeks and even longer.

How would you feel about that? The knowledge that whenever you look up at the sky, day or night, a robotic eye would be looking down at you. It wouldn’t matter if your interests were simply birdwatching or admiring the stars, I defy you not to feel a shiver of guilt at that moment.

Does the idea horrify you? The realisation that you would never know privacy out of doors again. In your back garden, on city streets, in national parks and in the wild places of the world, you will always be watched, always under the aerial eye.

Privacy – the dream that once was real

I hope that it does. Because the laws on privacy as we know them would become irrelevant. The concept of privacy itself would be relegated to history, a dream that once was real. Even for the wealthy, land ownership would be irrelevant when aerial cameras can pick out a fly at a distance of two miles as well as see through undergrowth.

This is what we risk if we give drones the freedom of European skies. The total loss of privacy, not just for now, not just for ourselves, but also for our children and our children’s children.

Who would vote for such a future? The answer is no-one. I doubt that one thinking person could be found to vote for a future in which personal freedoms would be so constrained.

Perhaps the question should be – will anyone get the chance to vote on it? Have governments themselves – and the individual politicians who are supposed to drive them – even thought seriously about the long-term consequences of liberating the drones?

At present the arguments are driven solely by vested interests, those that stand to gain from a new and expanding market niche. Perhaps we need to remember how unscrupulous organisations and undemocratic governments have operated in the past. Gain power over people by creating the threat and a climate of fear, then offer security from that fear if enough money is spent – usually in the direction of favoured supporters or businesses. I thought that the democracies of the west had moved away from this flawed historical model.

You don’t know what you’ve got …

It is a truism (and a popular song) that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. If drones become commonplace in European skies, then we will have lost something very precious to the human spirit. You cannot enjoy the balm to the human soul of watching a beautiful sky or sunset, if your view is poisoned by the knowledge of a watching drone.

Can drones sense spirituality. No, they are but machines. Don’t give those machines the power to poison the simplest of human freedoms.

Part 2 (to come)
Eyes in the sky (part 2) – the consequences – control.

[1] European Commission: “Towards a European strategy for the development of civil applications of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems”, 4th September 2012.
[2] Teal Group Corporation: World Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems. Market
Profile and Forecast, Fairfax/VA 2009 (source: Statewatch).

See also:
How do you surrender to a drone?

Statewatch document no. 106, “The droning of drones”, Volker Eick

US military flying drones in domestic airspace

© Philip Hunt, 2012.

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