Drones for Good: Technology, Social Movements and The State

Discussions surrounding use of drones, or UAVs, have typically “centered on their use by governments, often for the purpose of surveillance and warfare.” But as colleague Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick rightly notes in his new study, “[t]his focus on the state’s use obscures the opportunity for civil society actors, including social movements, to make use of these technologies.” Austin thus seeks to high-light civil society uses, “ranging from art to digital disruption.” The latter is what I am particularly interested given my previous writings on the use of non-lethal UAVs for civil resistance and for peacebuilding.

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When I began writing my doctoral dissertation some 7 years ago, scholars and activists were particularly interested in measuring the impact of mobile phones on social movements and civil resistance. Today, civil society is also turning to UAVs as evidenced during the recent protests in Hong Kong, Turkey, Poland, Ukraine and Ferguson. “This innovation represents a technological shift in scale for citizen journalists, human rights advocates, and social movement actors,” writes Austin. “As such, it requires a sophisticated assessment of the ethical issues and policy terrain surrounding its use.”

The most disruptive aspect of today’s small, personal UAVs, “is the fundamental break between the camera and the street level. […] The most memorable photographs of violent conflict, social protest and natural disasters have almost all been taken by a person present on the ground. […] UAVs relocate the boundary between what is public and what is private, because camera-equipped UAVs more the line of sight from the street to the air. This simple shift effectively pushes public space from the sidewalk to the stairwell, courtyard, rooftop, and so forth.” As Austin rightly concludes, “‘Open air’ and ‘free space’ are no longer as ‘open’ or ‘free’ as they once were. They are instead now occupied or vulnerable to occupation.” The use of the words “occupied” and “occupation” here is indeed intentional. Austin also makes another crucial point: UAVs  represent a type of innovation that is a “hallmark of asymmetrical warfare.”

One of my favorite books, Wasp, illustrates this asymmetry perfectly; as does the Syria Air Lift project. The latter seeks to fly swarms of UAVs to deliver aid to civilians caught in conflict zones. Little surprise, then, that the State is clamping down on civil society uses of UAVs. At times, they even shoot the UAVs down, as evidenced when “police in Istanbul shot down a camera-equipped UAV while it was monitoring large anti-government protests […].” Authorities would not be shooting down UAVs if they did not pose some form of (real or imagined) threat. And even when they pose no direct threat, UAVs are clearly annoying enough to react to (like a wasp or annoying mosquito). Annoyance is a key tactic in civil guerrilla warfare and civil resistance.


Austin goes on to propose a “broad framework to guide a range of non-state and non-commercial actor uses of drones.” This framework is comprised of the following 6 principles:

1. Subsidiarity: decision-making and problem solving should occur at the lowest and least sophisticated level possible. I take this to mean that decisions surrounding the use of drones should be taken at the local level (implying local ownership) and that drones should “only be used to address situations for which there is not a less sophisticated, invasive, or novel use.”

2. Physical and material security: self-explanatory – “care must be taken so that these devices do not collide with people or with one another.”

3. Do no harm: emphasizes a “rights-based approach as found in the development and humanitarian aid communities. “The principle is one of proportionality, in which the question to be answered is, ‘Are the risks of using UAVs in a given humanitarian setting outweighed by the expected benefits?'”

4. Public interest: also self-explanatory but “especially sensitive to the importance of investigative journalism that holds to account the powerful and well-resourced, despite attempts by established interests to discredit these efforts.” Public interest should also include the interests of the local community.

5. Privacy: straightforward issue but not easily resolved: “creating a [privacy] framework that applies in all circumstances is nearly impossible in an era in which digital privacy appears to be a mirage […].

6. Data protection: of paramount importance. Aerial footage of protests can be used by governments to “create a database of known activists.” As such, “[c]ontext specific protocols must ensure the security of data, thereby protecting against physical or digital theft or corruption.”

Are there other principles that should factor into the “Drones for Good” frame-work? If so, what are they? I’ll also be asking these questions in Dubai this week where I’m speaking at the Drones for Good Festival.

2 responses to “Drones for Good: Technology, Social Movements and The State

  1. The Syria airlift project should be starting soon, seen a good documentary on it, very creative way to help those in a warzone, i wonder if theres anyway we can use drones to help in other war tone countries?

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