Aerial surveillance is the use of either manned or unmanned aircraft to collect surveillance. Video or visual imagery data obtained from aerial surveillance is analyzed and can be used to influence, direct, manage or protect people. In previous years conducting aerial surveillance was an expensive matter for governments because of the enormous costs associated with manned aircraft. However, with advances in technology, small size and low-cost technologically advanced unmanned aircraft are being developed. In this paper the ethical concerns as well as the political advantages and disadvantages associated with aerial surveillance are explored.
The prospect of cheap, small, mobile flying video surveillance machines now threatens to obliterate the existing practically limits on aerial monitoring and allow for widespread surveillance, police fishing expeditions and abusive use of these tools in ways that could eventually eliminate the privacy people have traditionally enjoyed in their life and activities. Since the FAA regulates the unmanned aircraft (commonly known as drones) to ensure that they are safe, they should, too, control the drones so that they are not used in ways that infringe on privacy.
Various cities in the US have been carrying out controlled tests on the possibilities of introducing drones to their departments. For example, along the border, the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) has since 2005 operated drones that are remotely controlled by pilots sitting in Arizona, North Dakota and Florida. In early 2011, the police department in rural Mesa County, Colorado, won FAA license to operate its Dragonflies drones anywhere in the county.
Possible ethical concerns include:
- Mission creep: Law enforcement agencies are more likely to adopt drones for other purposes like deterrents to crime when they are floating about and to write out traffic tickets.
- Tracking: Fleets of drones, interconnected and augmented with analytics software, could allow mass tracking of vehicles and pedestrians around a wide area.
- Chilling effects: If everyone felt that the government is on their backs whenever they ventured outdoors, they would behave differently. They will also make different decisions than they would under normal circumstances.
- Voyeurism: drones are subjects to personal abuse; for example, a couple enjoying private time on the rooftop of their home can be filmed.
- Discriminatory targeting: individuals operating the drones bring to the job their existing prejudices and biases. For example, in Britain camera operators focus more on people of color.
- Automated law enforcement: Drones can be used to enforce justice with little or no human intervention leading to unfair judgment. They may also be susceptible to the software errors.
- Institutional abuse: bad policies set by the top can transform entire law enforcement agency towards abusive ends. This may occur particularly during periods of intense political conflicts.
Political advantages of aerial surveillance
In politics, aerial surveillance has three main uses: confidence building; aerial monitoring of targets, sites or activities and collateral information gathering. It can be used to search for, inspect for, deter, detect and counsel of noncompliant behavior, as well as to provide information that might help other means of monitoring. Collateral information can boost agreed sources of information about contract compliance or it can be used for other intelligence purposes, e.g., Strategic assessments, targeting and general warning.
Drones could also fill a gap in current border surveillance by improving coverage along remote sections of the U.S. borders. They can provide accurate and real-time imagery to an operator, who then can disseminate that information so that informed decisions concerning deployment of border patrol agents can be made immediately.
Drones can assist police in SWAT operations and also spotting fields of illegal marijuana plant cultivation. Aerial imagery obtained from drones can also be used to monitor compliance with international agreements against nuclear and biological weapons.
Cooperative aerial surveillance between the US and Russia can be employed to build confidence among the signatories. This can assist in reducing tensions, encouraging greater transparency and development of shared understanding through increased contact and openness.
Aerial monitoring flights can be included in arms control agreements to explore for, deter or counsel of compliance violations as well as providing information that might help the other means of monitoring. They can also be used to monitor internal agreements e.g. pollution levels.
Political disadvantages of aerial surveillance
Unauthorized aerial surveillance (spying) can result in dire consequences for the government involved. This can lead to civil revolutions as a result of citizens protesting against issues like invasion of privacy. Externally, aerial surveillance can result in increased tensions between countries whereby an affected country may feel that its sovereignty is being violated.
Aerial surveillance over farms and companies can result in law suits and protests against responsible government agencies. For example, coal mining companies in Kentucky have already protested against the government’s use of helicopters to monitor their coal mining operations. Farmers in Nebraska are also against the FAA’s constant aerial livestock surveillance, saying that the aerial surveillance is to enforce federal laws regarding rivers and streams.
Drones are potentially extremely powerful surveillance tools, and they, therefore, need to be a subject to checks and balances. If some reasonable privacy ground rules are set, the society can benefit fully from this technology without having to worry about its negative sides. Limits and regulations need to be imposed on drones in order to protect the privacy Americans have always enjoyed.