For decades, the CIA has been cultivating a reputation for performing extraterritorial assassinations. Drug lords, rebel leaders, and even repressive autocrats have been victims. These targeted killings have generally been uncontroversial, except when bystanders are accidental casualties. Since the Global War On Terror began ten years ago, however, the increased use of Predator drones has given rise to new political debates. NATO has relied on the use of drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to eradicate rogue insurgencies throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. In particular, the extrajudicial killings of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki generated concerns in Washington over a perceived erosion of American justice.
These cries resumed Tuesday when Attorney General Eric Holder posited that the use of armed drones on American soil could conceivably be legal. With 64 drone bases already erected on American soil, the complaints are legitimate. Beyond extrajudicial assassination anxieties, however, drones pose many unprecedented dangers to the future of law enforcement and power dynamics across all human societies.
Commercial drone prices are comparable to a luxury yacht or a helicopter, though certainly cheaper than a private jet. Thus far, commercial UAVs have been of novelty use, mostly employed to gather video footage of exotic locales. They are harbored at airports and generally subjected to air traffic control. But with advances in technology, UAVs could begin to fly "under the radar." The extensive surveillance capacity provided to those who could afford personal drones would surely furnish them ungovernable powers. Commercial drone use was banned five years ago, but 327 permits remain active for non-military use.
Unfortunately, drone capacities have already breached the borders of novelty. A Reuters report released earlier this week exposed how drones are utilized in combating wildfires, detecting volcanic activity and monitoring agricultural production. Homeland Security drones are capable of identifying civilians carrying guns, while federal agencies have used them to search for marijuana fields and track immigrants violating American borders. Most disturbingly, various media agencies, including tabloid TMZ and several Hollywood film companies, have used drones to gather video footage.
As drone technology has expanded across borders, many features have been rapidly enhanced. Micro-UAVs "can be outside your window and you won't hear a whisper," as one U.S. official expressed. These miniature drones are barely larger than a pie pan. Drone data collection has also drastically improved, along with firing accuracy. The predominant fear, of course, is that the powerful characteristics of UAVs will be used for illicit purposes. Foreign nations are likely to restrict commercial drone usage as the U.S. has, but that does not mean criminal organizations will be unable to acquire them. Certainly crude prototypes are already under construction.
Even if criminally operated UAVs do not accommodate missile capacity, their alternate uses are infinite. Cross-border drug distribution, weapons delivery, and external military monitoring are just a few that come to mind. As the vehicles become smaller, less detectable, and more economical, they are certain to recruit unforeseen capabilities. Furthermore, identifying a drone’s operator may be impossible, especially if built on the black market.
Some flying machine hobbyists continue to use homemade drones without governmental interference: the FAA has neither the capital nor the human resources to monitor crude aerial vehicles. As a result, drone operators have faced minimal legal scrutiny and no drones have been shot down. Indeed, it is incredibly difficult to enforce drone regulations, especially when it is not entirely clear what the definition of a "drone" is. The Justice Department walks a slippery slope. An indefinite UAV ban could supply a mass of lawless, unregulated aerial transports, while legalization could lead to even faster growth in technology. For now, sovereign governments must do everything in their power to restrict the spread of drone technology.