Should we be afraid of drones?


"No one knows you're a drone": it's thehe reading of the week! This is an article published in The New Inquiryunder the pen of Trevor Timm (@trevortimm, @drones) and Parker Higgins (@xor), activists at theElectronic Frontier Foundationthe American association that defends the rights of people in a digital world. It's called Nobody knows you're a drone "("No one knows you're a drone"), in reference to the famous drawing in the New Yorker where a dog stood behind a screen with the caption: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog". And in fact, it is first of all the Internet that the article is interested in, this military technology that civilians have appropriated with all the utopian aims we know, utopias that are often disappointed.

Forty years after the Internet," the authors continue, "we have seen a new wave of military technology - drones. A technology whose existence and expansion is justified by the act of killing. But in small technophile circles, these machines excite the imagination in a way reminiscent of the personal computer revolution. As fascinating and terrifying as the armed and mechanical patrols roaming the skies are, remote destruction is not what causes this excitement. For drones have not only destroyed thousands of lives, they have also delivered real-time images of that destruction in return.

As a domestic tool, UAVs are the last step in the collection and analysis of surveillance data. Looking at them in this way allows another comparison between the coming revolution of drones and the personal computer: if, as Steve Jobs said, the PC is like a bicycle for our brains, what would drones be, once released from their military function and appropriated by the public? Well, instead of increasing our intelligence, they expand our senses. They extend our vision, giving us eyes in the sky, above and around the globe, like thin membranes between us and the world, extending and filtering what we can perceive from it.

Aerial surveillance is not by far the first technology to change our vision. Glasses have clarified our environment, telescopes have shortened distances, microscopes have shown us that there is life where we didn't think there was any, high-speed cameras have sliced motion into a series of static positions. There is nothing inherently insidious about broadening our perspectives. And with communities like DIYDrones (basically, "make your own drones"), it's hard not to feel a mixture of excitement and anxiety.

To weigh these two possible futures, it is important to first consider the trajectory of technological development. And to get an idea of the ambition of military programmes, one need only look at the plans for the project called Gorgon Stare...the "Gorgon's gaze".

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The Gorgon is the monster of Greek mythology. However, statues of the Gorgon were often placed on top of buildings; those who built them thought that its terrible look would protect them from intruders. It is this inflexible gaze that made her legend: the most famous of the Gorgonians, Medusa, had the power to turn into stone whoever crossed her gaze.


Image: the Gorgon Stare de la Darpa project explained by Wired.

The military version of this myth is otherwise terrifying: you can't avoid the eyes of the drones. The planned flying machine has dozens of cameras that cover up to 40 square kilometres in its entirety. In comparison, today's drones record images from just one camera that covers an area the size of a building or two. "The Gorgon's gaze will be able to cover an entire city, so it will be impossible for the adversary to know what we are really looking at. You can see everything," explains one soldier.

Compensating for this type of military power requires a radical decentralization and democratization of technology. Just as the popularity and capabilities of the personal computer have grown as the price of processors has fallen, so the number of personal drones will increase as the price of sensors falls, which has already begun. Projects such as Occucopters, designed by the Occupy movements to document police abuses, are a promise, a way to put the power of drones in the hands of civilians. All of this goes hand in hand with Open Source movements, of course. But the impact of the technology is questionable if individuals and the community don't own it. Other technologies haven't lived up to their promise, like encryption, which prevents surveillance, but which not many people use.

Video: Demonstration of the Occucopter flying over Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland: 

It is therefore a mistake to view the UAV revolution with the same naive or techno-utopic optimism as some did the personal computer revolution. There is no question that this new technology is a real threat to our freedoms, but we must accept that it will continue to develop. It is also a mistake to cynically assume that everything will get worse. Drones will dominate the skies in the near future, we know that. But who those drones will be, and if they serve the public good, those are still unanswered questions. »

(Article published in Internet - July 2012)

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Xavier de la Porte (@xporte), producer of the show Place de la Toile on France Culture, makes an interesting reading of a news article every week as part of its programme. The 14 July programme was devoted to cultural practices in the post-Hadopi internet, with Raphaël Suire (@pareto35) teacher-researcher at the University of Rennes I, member of the Marsouin Laboratory and one of the authors of an inventory of legal and illegal online practices. It was also devoted to the practices of the political web in Russia in the company of Julien Nocetti (@juliennocetti), a researcher associated with the Russian centre of the IFRI (French Institute of International Relations) who has just coordinated a very interesting issue of the journal Foreign policy: "Internet, a tool of power "where he writes an article on the relationship between the web and politics in this country. The July 21st show, the last of the season, featured Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99), the famous editorialist of the American magazine Wired. 

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