With drones poised for takeoff in US airspace beginning in 2015, questions are mounting over how governments will use remotely-piloted eyes in the sky to monitor everything from traffic patterns to wastewater runoff.
One association that represents private forest landowners, and whose members include some of the country's largest owners of timberland, says the government has effectively admitted that it's using drones to "spy" on private owners in the name of preventing pollution. The Forest Landowners Association is now polling its members to ask "your thoughts on the government using satellite and drone technology to glean insight about your land."
The questions the group wants to answer show where future conflicts may erupt between government and private interests over the use of technology that, heretofore, has mainly been used to monitor enemies in combat.
1. Are you concerned that with advances in satellite and drone technology the government has the ability to take a closer look at your land?
2. What does it have a right to know?
3. Are there boundaries on your property rights?
4. Have you ever had an instance where you wondered how the government knew certain things about your property?
Scott Jones, the association's CEO, said his group is concerned about "our rights as private forest landowners" in light of Senate testimony in April by Bob Perciasepe, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jones said that under questioning from lawmakers about the EPA's use of drones to monitor animal feedlots for signs of water pollution, the acting chief admitted that the agency "was utilizing drones to 'spy' on private lands."
At the hearing, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) accused the EPA of using the remotely-piloted aircraft to monitor people, not just pollution. "You're flying at low altitudes, you're flying over law-abiding people who are trying to do everything they can to honor your rules and regulations and you're not coming down on the bad actors," Johanns said. "You're checking on everybody and it feels terrible. It feels like there's a federal agency out there spying and on American citizens."
Perciasepe rejected that characterization and said the drones allowed the EPA "a very efficient way for us to narrow where we go to on the ground, [to] talk to landowners about what they're doing."
But Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who noted that his own parents were dairy farmers, wasn't persuaded. “You said it's not like you were spying on people. What term would you use?"
"We're looking for where there may be animals and their waste in the water. And so, we are not looking at people at all," Perciasepe replied.
"So you're spying on animals?" Blunt asked.
“Well, we're looking to see where we would send inspectors to see if there was a problem of water pollution. So I don’t know that the animals are what we're spying on. We're looking at the conditions that could be creating water-quality violations.”
Jones, the association CEO, called the agency's use of drones "heavy handed."
"We launched a poll to our membership, who own and operate more than 43 million acres of private forestland, so they could weigh in with their concerns, which we intend to share with lawmakers and the administration." The group's members include large companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific, as well as owners of small land tracts.
The EPA has attempted to mollify critics of its drone flights and says it wants to hear about objections. "I understand the perception that you're bringing up," Perciasepe told Johanns. "It's helpful for me to hear the intensity of it and I will bring that back."
I did double moderator duty for a set of discussions yesterday at the New America Foundation. Broadly speaking the subject was the domestic applications (domestication?) of unmanned vehicles. Everything from flying drones to driverless cars. Since there's not a lot of drone technology in use in the US today, a lot of the conversation was speculative. But it was also hugely imaginative and fascinating.
You can watch all the presentations here. What most impressed me about the commentary was that for all the justifiable anxiety associated with the deployment of this technology--our experiences with it are laregely informed, after all, by the use of lethal drones in war zones--most of the panelists were optimistic about the positive effect unmanned vehicles could have. Maximizing crop yields. Monitoring endangered species. Search and rescue assistance. Drone cargo planes. New ways of gathering news.To hear some of the panelists tell it, our robot future is very bright.
There was plenty of skepticism and caution, for sure, particularly on the obvious privacy implications of flying cameras and sensors. But I think the mix of "pro" and "con," if I can reduce it to that level, tells you that the discussion about drones is becoming more nuanced and sophisticated. Drones aren't all good. They're not all bad.
If you want the blue sky view on where drones may be flying in the US, check out the segment "A New Technology Takes Flight" with Missy Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot turned MIT robotic scientist, and Michael Toscano, who runs the largest trade association for unmanned vehicles.
And for a good look at how drone technology moved from the battlefield to the homefront, listen to Konstantin Kakaes' short discussion. He also makes some excellent points that run contrary to assumptions--including mine--about how useful drones may be.
I moderated a panel last week at Georgetown Law School on "Ethical and Legal Implications of Autonomous Weapons." The conversation was mostly about drones, and whether the military would ever deploy robotic airplanes that would track, identify, and fire on people without any control or orders from a human being (I've said that I think this is going to happen; military officers, current and former, strongly disagree with me on that point.)
But the talk wasn't all about lethal flying drones. Missy Cummings of MIT, a former Naval aviator who is one of the most thoughtful experts on robotic technology I've ever talked to, wondered whether automated "snipers" might be deployed in cities where suicide bombers threatened the population. This led to a fascinating and provocative exchange with the other panelists, Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, and Ben Wittes of Brookings, who runs Lawfare.
The discussion begins around 59:00 minutes on this recording. (Video quality isn't great, but audio is fine.) "What if you had like on light posts, little sniper guns. And as soon as somebody pulls of that vest, the sniper gun could tag that guy?" Cummings asks.
Undoubtedly, she says, a robot sniper would act faster than a human. That's because of something in the human body called the neuromuscular lag. It takes us about half a second to recognize that someone is wearing a suicide vest, and another half second to fire at him. It would take an automated robot sniper, however, "on the order of microseconds" to complete this sequence of actions.
"In that scenario, there's no question that the automation would be better than a human," Cummings says. The trick is building a sensor that actually can identify the bomb correctly.
"If we could kill one suicide bomber a month" this way, "and we killed accidentally let's say one person every three years or five years, how would we feel about that?"
The other panelists weigh in on that question. And I think the discussion is more relevant than the hypothetical nature of Cummings' scenario might suggest. We are going to have drones flying over US cities for law enforcement and commercial purposes within the next two to four years, I'd say. The FAA has to integrated remote aircraft into the airspace by 2013, and after that, you're going to see a whole new market for flying robots take off. Why wouldn't law enforcement agencies at least consider the kinds of public safety applications Cummings is imagining? Putting aside that we dont' have a suicide bomber population in the US. What about robot drones protecting schools from mass shooters? We can certainly envision that scenario, whether we agree we should ever go there or not.
Here are some upcoming titles that have caught my attention in the past few months. Pub dates given if available.
Untitled book by Andrew Cockburn (Times Books)
The author of Rumsfeld, and future father-in-law to SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis, is working on a true story about drones and assassins.
We Will Not Be Silent: How the White Rose Student Resistance Movement Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman (Clarion)
A story about a small group of university students who distributed anti-Hitler leaflets and condemned his policies.
Untitled book on Russian protest group Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen (Riverhead)
The author of The Man Without a Face, about the rise of Vladimir Putin, has an untold story of Russia's most famous dissidents.
Pub date: Fall 2013
Untitled book by Karen J. Greenberg (Crown)
Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, is writing a narrative account described as "how the power and legitimacy of the Department of Justice have been radically challenged in the wake of 9/11."
Casablanca by Meredith Hindley (Public Affairs)
A narrative history of the famous North African city, against the backdrop of the French resistance, Gestapo, Vichy agents, and American spies battling for control.
The Russian Revolution by Sean McKeekin (Basic)
Billed as "a revisionist account of the Russian Revolution" based on new information from Soviet archives.
Pub date: 2017
CIA Rogues and the Killing of the Kennedys: How and why CIA Agents Conspired to Kill JFK and RFK by Patrick Nolan (Skyhorse)
An investigation of "CIA involvement" in the assassinates of President Kennedy and his brother Robert. Timed for release with the 50th anniversary of JFK's death.
Pub date: Fall 2013
Rogue Code by Mark Russinovich (Thomas Dunne Books)
The third novel in a thriller series about cyber-expert Peter Joseph. The first two books were Zero Day and Trojan Horse.
Untitled book by Adam Segal (Public Affairs)
Segal, who's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and heads up their cyber security initiatives will write about "the geopolitics of information and what diplomacy looks like in the age of big data."
Forty-Seven Days by Mitchell Yockelson (Caliber)
How Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing led the Army and helped it come of age in World War I, with the service of soldiers such as George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Harry Truman.
Pub date: Summer 2015
Ken Anderson and Ben Wittes, two good friends of Dead Drop, are embarking on an intriguing and from my perspective quite welcome new project. They're writing a book that will pull together all the significant speeches Obama administration officials have given on national security law, and then "weave it all back together, creating a synthetic account of the administration’s views that is worth more collectively than the sum of its parts."
Called Speaking the Law, it will be "a kind of handbook on the framework for counterterrorism," using administration officials' own words as the foundation. "Consider it the White Paper the administration has never issued," say Ken and Ben.
I suspect Obama administration officials themselves will be among this book's most avid readers, given the authors' premise, and that journalists and scholars will find it useful as well:
"There is a myth that the administration has had little to say on the subject of its counterterrorism authorities, especially targeted killing and drones--largely because it has declined to release publicly its Office of Legal Counsel targeted killing memoranda. Part of the point of Speaking the Law is to show how wrong this myth really is. The administration has actually said a huge amount. It’s just that it has said a great deal of it orally, and has broken up its utterances among a number of different statements."
The authors are publishing the chapters serially online, and then the Hoover Institution will put out a hardcover version when all the work is finished. The introduction and first chapter are available now.
If, like Whitney Houston, you too believe that children are our future, consider this idea from fourth-grader Maxwell Montgomery on how the United States should use drones. Maxwell wrote in to our "welcome letter" contest for the National Zoo's elephants, and said he is particularly concerned about elephant poaching.
"If I was president, I would place surveillance drones over the area where elephants are shot, identify the shooters, and send then police to arrest them."
Lethal robots are something of a fascination for me. And more specifically, the point in time at which unmanned aerial vehicles, which the military prefers I not call drones, reach a sufficient level of autonomy that they can operate largely without the direction or influence of a human being. I wrote about the point when drones might reach that threshold in a paper for the Hoover Institution last year.