Drones, The Civic Surveillance Equalizer?

3d robotics drone in action (1)

I’ll shoot down any drone,” I see, the property owner tells you. “I don’t want anyone spying on me.”

This exchange, which seemingly every UAV operator has had at lest once, reflects the public’s biggest worry about drones: they can, potentially, be used to spy on everyday citizens.

But this knee-jerk reaction ignores the fact the stream goes both ways. With the advent of inexpensive UAVs, average citizens can for the first time in history keep tabs on illicit or criminal behavior by the government, corporations, and other powerful entities.

Computer hacking presents a good analogy for the two-way potential of drone-gathered data. While sophisticated hackers employed by the US government can secretly monitor the activities of civilians, so too can savvy computer experts with the means to manipulate the system to their own ends. 

In our era, the interplay between rebellious hackers and government-run Internet surveillance makes headlines constantly just about everywhere, documenting an international arms race that is unlikely ever to be decisively decided.

Something similar will likely happen with drones, as more and more civilians begin to acquire them and become experts in their use — catching up with established government dominance over these unmanned aerial vehicles.

UAVs present massive potential for activists engaging in civil resistance around the world, who usually find themselves fighting against vastly more powerful and well-funded military and police forces.

Civilians armed with drones, as Patrick Meier noted over at iRevolution  will be able to counter their government’s account of how a protest suppression went down with their own real-time aerial footage.

We’ve already seen this in action, as high-definition UAV footage of the drama in Ukraine and Bangkok in the summer of 2013 elegantly demonstrated. High definition aerial footage gathered by a nearby UAV operator will provide exceedingly hard to deny counter evidence to a given government’s account of what took place during a suppression, a demonstration, or a crackdown

Many other potential applications exist that we haven’t even thought of yet, from sky-writing helpful messages, to following corrupt officials as they attempt to evade detection, even as far as dropping needed supplies or useful information to isolated or cut-off activists.

The potential for fighting back with drones against bigger and more powerful organizations or individuals doesn’t just include government suppression. Drones can be used to document illegal commerce, providing proof that illegal logging or fishing are taking place over the public denials of well-connected companies.

It’s also not hard to envision a future where a civilian with a small camera drone will be able to document civilian-on-civilian crime – for example, deploying a small drone out of their apartment window to safely document a shooting on the street, providing useful evidence to authorities.

Civilians who are worried about their privacy in the face of the coming UAV revolution have justifiable concerns. But these worried citizens should step back and realize that drones will likely be one of the most effective tools they have at their own disposal, for countering government and private abuses and corruption.

The answer to these privacy concerns isn’t banning the public from owning camera drones — especially as there is no chance that the authorities will voluntarily give up their own UAVs. The answer may well be training and equipping activists with their very own eyes-in-the sky.

Drone critics who are suspicious of the government and its newly-release surveillance tactics should realize that civilian UAV operators are actually their natural allies. Concerned citizens should embrace the new-found reach and detail that drone photography provides them with, and use these innovations to protect themselves.