Drone Britain

Despite the supposed anti-surveillance tendencies of the new coalition government in Britain, one kind of surveillance would seem to be expanding, as it is almost everywhere in the world: that of surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Micro-unmanned Aerial Vehicles (MAVs) or flying drone cameras. There are so many previous stories on this blog about drones you’d be better off searching than me providing links here!

The Guardian reported on Friday that a growing number of different agencies are either ordering drones or have plans to do so, including he Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), four police forces (Merseyside, Essex, Staffordshire and the British Transport Police), the Environment Agency, and even some Fire Services (West Midlands and South Wales). This follows the story in January that there was what seemed to be an evolving secret national strategy for drones.

So far, their use has been limited not by ethical concerns but by the requirements of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which insists that they must be “licensed when flown within 50 metres of a person, property or structure.” This remains its position, but it will be interesting to see how stringent are the licensing requirements as drones increase in number and whether the expansion in UAV use is in any way affected by the government’s stated policy aim to bring CCTV under stricter regulation.

(thanks to Charles Raab for this)

Does the expansion of surveillance make assassination harder? Not in a world of UAVs…

Following the killing of Mahmood Al-Mabhouh is Dubai, allegedly by Israeli Mossad agents, some people are starting to ask whether political assassination is being made more difficult by the proliferation of everyday surveillance. The Washington Post argues that it is, and they give three other cases, including that of Alexandr Litvinenko in London in 2006. But there’s a number of reasons to think that this is a superficial argument.

However the obvious thing about all of these is that they were successful assassinations. They were not prevented by any surveillance technologies. In the Dubai case, the much-trumpeted new international passport regime did not uncover a relatively simple set  of photo-swaps – and anyone who has talked to airport security will know how slapdash most ID checks really are. Litvinenko is as dead as Georgi Markov, famously killed by the Bulgarian secret service with a poisoned-tipped umbrella in London in 1978, and we still don’t really have a clear idea of what was actually going on in the Markov case despite some high-profile charges being laid.

Another thing is that there are several kinds of assassination: the first are those that are meant to be clearly noticed, so as to send a message to the followers or group associated with the deceased. Surveillance technologies, and particularly CCTV,  help such causes by providing readily viewable pictures that contribute to a media PR-campaign that is as important as the killing itself. Mossad in this case, if it was Mossad, were hiding in plain sight – they weren’t really trying to do this in total secrecy. And, let’s not forget many of the operatives who carry out these kinds of actions are considered disposable and replaceable.

The second kind are those where the killers simply don’t care one way or the other what anyone else knows or thinks (as in most of the missile attacks by Israel on the compounds of Hamas leaders within Gaza or the 2002 killing of Qaed Senyan al-Harthi by a remote-controlled USAF drone in the Yemen). The third kind are those that are not meant to be seen as a killing, but are disguised as accidents – in most of those cases, we will never know: conspiracy theories swirl around many such suspicious events, and this fog of unknowing only helps further disguise those probably quite small number of truly fake accidents and discredits their investigation. One could argue that such secret killings may be affected by widespread surveillance, but those involved in such cases are far more careful and more likely to use methods to leverage or get around conventional surveillance techniques.

Then of course, there is the fact that the techniques of assassination are becoming more high-tech and powerful too. The use of remote-control drones as in the al-Harthi case is now commonplace for the US military in Afghanistan and Pakistan, indeed the CIA chief, Leon Panetta, last year described UAVs as “the only game in town for stopping Al-Qaeda.” And now there are many more nations equipping themselves with UAVs – which, of course, can be both surveillance devices and weapons platforms. Just the other day, Israel announced the world’s largest drone – the Eltan from Heron Industries, which can apparently fly for 20 hours non-stop. India has already agreed to buy drones from the same company. And, even local police forces in many cities are now investing in micro-UAVs (MAVs): there’s plenty of potential for such devices to be weaponized – and modelled after (or disguised as) birds or animals too.

Finally, assassinations were not that common anyway, so it’s hard to see any statistically significant downward trends. If anything, if one considers many of the uses of drones and precision-targeted missile strikes on the leaders of terrorist and rebel groups as ‘assassinations’, then they may be increasing in number rather than declining, albeit more confined to those with wealth and resources…

(Thanks to Aaron Martin for pointing me to The Washington Post article)

The drone surge

The Huffington Post has a really interesting article on the current and future use of drones (whether they be UAVs, MAVs or other things) by the US military. Judging from the early comments, it seems there are some people also think these things are great because ‘they keep US soldiers safe’ – unfortunately they don’t seem to do the same for the villagers of the impoverished countries where they are deployed. As the International Campiagn for Robotic Arms Control (ICRAC) is arguing, there needs to be an international treaty or convention to regulate the use of such machines when they are used as or part of weapons systems, but beyond that, these systems, out of theline of vision of the general public, in terms of their policy development and often their physical deployment, are seen as ‘the future of surveillance’ within many nations too – as was revealed in Britain just the other day. The military-industrial complex is now the security-industrial complex and there is a decreasing gap between military tech and its civilian counterparts…

More military robots…

A story in the Daily Mail shows two new military robot surveillance devices developed for the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence and Equipment Support (DES) group. The first is a throwable rolling robot equipped with multiple sensors, which can be chucked like a hand-grenade and then operated by remote-control. The second is another Micro-(Unmanned) Aerial Vehicle (Micro-UAV or MAV), a tiny helicopter which carries a surveillance camera. There have been rolling surveillance robots around for a while now (like the Rotundus GroundBot from Sweden), but this toughened version seems to be unique. The helicopter MAV doesn’t seem to be particularly new, indeed it looks at least from the pictures, pretty similar to the one controversially bought by Staffordshire police in Britain – which is made by MicroDrones of Germany.

The proliferation of such devices in both military and civil use is pretty much unchecked and unnoticed by legislators at present. Media coverage seems to be limited to ‘hey, cool!’ and yes, they are pretty cool as pieces of technology, but being used in useful humanitarian contexts (for example, rolling robots getting pictures of a partially-collapsed building or MAVs flying over a disaster zone) is a whole lot different from warfare, which is a whole lot different again from civilian law enforcement, commercial espionage or simple voyeuristic purposes. As surveillance gets increasingly small, mobile and independent, we have a whole new set of problems for privacy, and despite the fact that we warned regulators about these problems back in 2006 in our Report on the Surveillance Society, little government thought seems to have been devoted to these and other new technologies of surveillance.

The use of robots in war is of course something else I have become very interested in, especially as these flying and rolling sensor-platforms are increasingly independent in their operation and, like the US Predator drones employed in Afghanistan and Pakistan or the MAARS battlefield robot made by Qinetiq / Foster-Miller, become weapons platforms too. This is an urgent but still largely unnoticed international human rights and arms control issue, and one which the new International Committee for Robotic Arms Control (in which I am now getting involved), will hopefully play a leading role in addressing.


Torin Monahan sent me this interesting video from the US Air Force showing ideas on Micro-Aerial Vehicles (MAVs) – nature-mimicking drones or independent robots that are intended to ‘enhance the capability of the future war-fighter’…

I’ve called for a convention on the use of robotic weapons and Professor Noel Sharkey and a couple of colleagues have now set up the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) – this video just illustrates why they need to be controlled as soon as possible before these kinds of things are widespread.