A slightly edited version of this piece first appeared in The Age
It was not until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 that the world began to grasp the diabolical scale of repression in East Germany. The Stasi—East Germany’s secret police—may have overseen a fatally diseased economy, but it had perfected the modern surveillance state. In Anna Funder’s Stasiland, she writes that there was a Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three citizens. Compare this to Hitler’s Third Reich where there was approximately one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens.
Surveillance has long been an obvious asset for totalitarian states, a tool of enforcement but also of deterrence, as the fear of being watched is often enough to cruelly inhibit citizens.
These days, the forms of surveillance have modernised dramatically. In Australia, we may fear breaches of privacy via the online harvesting of personal data, or perhaps you might fear the disturbed attentions of those following you on social media. There’s also the modern phenomenon of drones, and their impact upon privacy.
There’s an inclination to categorise drone use with US military policy, but this massively narrows our discussion of drones, ignores the now widespread use and applications of the technology.
As the US military operates drones from secure rooms in Nevada, controlling their flights across tribal patches of Pakistan, you can today pick up an AR Parrot Drone 2.0 for $349, equipped with high definition camera. For a few thousand dollars, you can purchase more sophisticated models with a range of up to 20 kilometres.
It’s easy to imagine that if the Stasi had drones, their sophisticated network of bugs and informants would’ve expanded to a control of the sky. But this would be overreaching, a shabby use of rhetoric. It’s sensible to reflect on the darker passages of history—specifically here the totalitarian misuse of technology—but our discussion of surveillance technology can’t stop there. An over-emphasis of historic travesties is likely to engender paranoiac fantasies and over-burdensome regulation, as much as it is sensible caution.
Most technology, in and of itself, is neither good or bad. Rather, it is the uses to which it’s put that attract a moral or social value. Nuclear energy may be harnessed for mass death, as it might be used to power an energy grid. A car provides transport, but in the hands of a drunk it becomes weaponised. The internet, in its sprawling, revolutionary sweep, has empowered each of us—including paedophiles.
Discussions of technology must be concerned then with its uses. Most often a rule of utility is used—that is, the greater convenience of a particular technology outweighs the smaller dangers. If we were to ban everything that might hurt us, we would have nothing. Progress would cease. (It’s worth pointing out, however, that certain technologies don’t have multiple uses—automatic assault rifles, for instance, whose sole purpose is instantaneous slaughter—and as such demand stringent regulation).
So it is with drones. During Occupy Wall Street, New York City police surveilled protestors and barred journalists from entering certain sections. One plucky Occupier then used an AR Parrot—controlled by his iPhone—to survey the police, and web-stream the footage live. The politics of Occupy is irrelevant here—rather, this particular use of the drone created a fascinating inversion: the watchers were now being watched.
In Australia, television networks have been toying with drones to enhance their coverage of sporting events. So far, drones have been used by Fox Sports in its coverage of one T20 match, while Nine has also dabbled with the technology. Overseas, scientists have used drones to monitor orang-utan numbers in Asian forests. This highlights the possible use of drones for ecological research in remote regions.
Of course, its uses may just as well be malicious. Drones may empower stalkers, for instance, or the paparazzi. Just as the work of a camera may hang in a portrait gallery, to be feted for generations, it may also serve to capture Lindsay Lohan lying in a gutter and splashed across front pages of gossip rags. Drones takes this game up a notch and the implications for privacy are massive.
The implications for regulators are also massive. For starters, we’ve long known that the glacial responses of regulators are no match for the rapid pace of technology. Second, drones pose a particular challenge in that their use affects aviation, media and privacy law. Regulators will have to find the sensible ground between fears of Orwellian misuse and technological evangelism—one outlook which is likely to retard the natural growth and discovery of positive applications, and the other which may overlook the social costs.