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Can Drones Be Used for Social Good?

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By Sarah Kerr, Program Assistant at WITNESS

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "drone?" A predator drone? American foreign policy? Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and the other secret drone strikes unlawfully taking place all over the world? While these concerns are absolutely pressing, there is another important conversation taking place beyond the Obama administration's drone program.

Behind the headlines, policymakers, lawyers, academics, innovators, engineers and aerial robot hobbyists are ruminating upon what some purport as the inevitable: The widespread integration of aerial robots into commerce, service delivery, humanitarian aid, agriculture, environment protection and quite importantly for us at WITNESS, human rights monitoring.

In early October, I had the opportunity to attend the first Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC). The purpose the conference was to bring together professionals from a variety of fields to work on the development of a constructive law and policy agenda for unmanned aerial robots in the United States.

While relevant due to emerging technology, this conversation is now especially pertinent in the United States since the passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act in 2012, which requires the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA) to create a plan to safely integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into U.S. domestic airspace by 2015. These guidelines will be outlined by government officials without the consultation of other important actors, such as civil society organizations and privacy advocates. This is obviously problematic considering how drastically drone regulations could alter society.

From a human rights perspective, the expansion of the drone market for a wide range of purposes poses a number of challenges surrounding how to ensure that human rights principles are integrated into all potential uses of aerial robots.

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Drone Photography. An image of the Maldives featured on the drone-photo sharing site Dronstagram. Licensed under Creative Commons via Laughing Squid and Chris Messina.

Privacy versus security: How to strike a balance when you can see everything.

In January of this year, the founders of the Genocide Intervention Network wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled "Drones for Human Rights," in which they imagined many possible uses of drones in human rights monitoring and international criminal justice work:

Drones can reach places and see things cell phones cannot. Social media did not document the worst of the genocide in the remote villages of Darfur in 2003 and 2004. Camera-toting protesters could not enter the fields where 8,000 men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in 1995. Graphic and detailed evidence of crimes against humanity does not guarantee a just response, but it helps.

The piece yielded a wave of responses, with many correctly arguing that it did not touch upon many other human rights-related issues that would arise from a sky filled with drones or a sky with just one single surveillance drone.

While the possibilities are exciting, a wealth of thought must be invested in considering how drones could be used to capture evidence of human rights violations without also violating our human right to privacy. This is obviously a tricky balance to strike when dealing with aerial photography, since you never know exactly what or who what you are going to capture on film.

Other questions that immediate arise include: Who should be allowed to use drones for human rights purposes? Could drones actually be used for international human rights monitoring given their use would involve violating a nation's airspace? With no national or international framework for these types of activities, it is important that the human rights community begin to engage governments and civil society actors with some of the big questions surrounding in this new frontier.

Drones for monitoring movement. Footage taken of a protest in Warsaw, Poland in 2011. Protesters launched the drone to monitor police activity during their protest.

Values and design: Is it possible to build a "drone for good?"

In considering the possibility of drones for human rights monitoring another important step is imagining the potential components and functionalities of a "drone for good." In the tech world, there are many who believe that in its individual components, technology is value neutral and as creators we instill our values in technology as we design and build it.

This perspective poses a key question; how do you build an aerial robot that operationalizes key human rights values such as privacy, security, safety, freedom of expression and respect? How do we work to make sure that it stays in the right hands and is equipped with capabilities that have the potential to actually protect human lives (such as video cameras that produce media with extensive metadata that can be securely sent via email)?

Some would argue that this is idea of embedding values in technology is not actually possible because some technologies are inherently valued in their overarching functionalities. For example with a drone, even the act of creating something that flies or looms over individuals allots power in the hand of one actor without the consultation of the other, which can be seen an expression of values in itself. This is also a critical dimension of this discussion that must be considered.

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Drones with internet. A drone created by Liam Young as part of his Electronic Counter Measures project. The drone, inspired by internet blackouts during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, provides internet to citizens within a given range. Image licensed through Creative Commons via Liam Young and The Funambulist.net. 

Mildly terrified? Want to learn more?

Good. A number of additional articles and resources are listed below (thanks to DARC for pulling these together). 

It is exciting to examine the opportunities presented by drone technology but we should also strongly scrutinize the limitations and possible effects of more widespread use. And the time to start thinking is now.

The initial rules are being written and the human rights community (and many other actors) must be prepared to contribute substantive policy suggestions to support the protection of human rights and safety of individuals across the globe.