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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Through The Looking Glass

Created using drone icon’ by Blaise Sewell (CC BY 3.0 US)
The only time I’ve actually noticed a drone in use was about a year ago (goodness knows how many times they’ve noticed me?!). It looked a bit like this...

DJI Quadcoptor Phantom Vision Plus by Vicki Burton (CC BY-SA 2.0)  

I was out with my family, visiting friends in the country and we were at a winery having lunch. Now, what began as a point of curiosity (oooh look! A drone), soon became a tad unsettling for a few reasons (that I could discern);

To start with I’m not entirely comfortable with being filmed or photographed by unknown persons/agencies at the best of times. The fact that I was outside looking for a secluded tree that my three-year old could wee on (with the staff’s permission), perhaps made me a bit more sensitive, as this is something I definitely don’t want filmed. The clincher though, is how apparent the power imbalance is, in that we were not only unable to escape the drone’s sight-line but also that the operator was nowhere to be seen. This has a similar effect to a stranger staring you down for no reason, but with the added insult that you can’t avoid or address the person in question, or even guess at their motives. It is an invasion of privacy to which the victim has no recourse.

Under such conditions it is near impossible to relax, or 'act normally', as even the awareness that you are being watched (and therefore judged) is enough to make you moderate your behaviour (in my case so as not to draw attention). Glenn Greenwald makes this point wonderfully in his 2014 Ted Talk.

Needless to say, I encouraged my son to hold on until an indoor toilet was available.

What I had experienced (to a very minor degree) was that the ‘visibility of surveilled subjects and the indirect visibility/unverifiability of supervisors create a power effect that coerces the surveilled individuals to alter their behaviour…’ (Završnik, A 2016 p.173). In this particular case I’m sure nothing will come of it. It was probably someone just playing with their new toy. However, with drones set to become more common in urban environments, the ethical as well as security implications need to be considered.

Surveillance is by no means the only use for drones, with our flying-friends being employed for: ‘search and rescue, news reporting, crop spraying, air quality monitoring, after-the-fact crime scene investigation, surveying, disaster response, wildlife tracking, research into the dynamics of violent storms, spotting wildfires, filmmaking, and traffic monitoring’ (Villasenor, J 2014 p.236) to name a few. Their utility is obvious and much has been made of this point, however ‘the rapid development of this technology suggests the need to shift from what these airborne devices can do to how they should be used’ (West, JP, & Bowman, JS 2016 p.649). This is especially pertinent when we see them being utilised by the likes of law enforcement agencies, such as in NSW recently.

Drone (CC0 1.0
The lack of formal legislation surrounding the usage of drones is point for concern enough, but also the lack of guidelines dealing with the limits of institutional surveillance is worrying. West and Bowman ask ‘are the right things being surveilled for the right reasons—and how is that known?’ (West, JP, & Bowman, JS 2016 p.653). This is a question of transparency, which is fundamental to this issue however I would also add that there is a need for clarity on how data from this type of surveillance is to interpreted. It is easy to become focussed on the technicalities of drones, whilst at the same time forgetting that they are a tool, and like any tool they can be poorly used. Like any surveillance system, it is ultimately our interpretation and usage of the data that determines its morality.


Završnik, A 2016, Drones and unmanned aerial systems : legal and social implications for security and surveillance, Cham : Springer, retrieved 26 August 2016, DEAKIN UNIV LIBRARY's Catalog, EBSCOhost.

Villasenor, J 2014, '“Drones” and the Future of Domestic Aviation', Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 102, no. 3, pp. 235-238.

West, JP, & Bowman, JS 2016, 'The Domestic Use of Drones: An Ethical Analysis of Surveillance Issues', Public Administration Review, vol. 76, no. 4, pp. 649-659.


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