Recently, several news outlets reported on a supposed plot by a Moroccan national to use remote controlled model airplanes as flying bombs. The story seems to lend credibility to speculation that model airplanes could be the next terrorist threat. In reality, however, these fears are part of a larger pattern of threat inflation about domestic “drones” that mirrors the kind of threat inflation that we see too often in public policy debates about new technologies.
Much of my writing has focused on public policy debate around cybersecurity. In that work, I have called attention to the threat inflation that often drives these debates. In doing so, I have pointed to a number of characteristics of threat inflation. We can observe these same characteristics in the emerging public policy discourse around domestic use of “drones.”
Those characteristics include:
In the case of cybersecurity, we see the conflation of a number of quite different problems–e.g. hacktivism, crime, espionage, terrorism, warfare–into a more generic category like “cyber threat” or “cyber war.” Differences in particular problems, technologies, actors, motivations, etc. are largely ignored. The generic “cyber threat” is better able to motivate a policy response, with the temptation being a one-size-fits-all solution.
In the case of civilian use of so-called “drones,” we are seeing a similar pattern. Both in public discourse and in emerging government regulation, “drone” and “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS) are used as imprecise, catch-all terms. As currently used by the FAA, for example, the term “UAS” includes, on one hand, armed military aircraft used to carry out a global campaign of surveillance and targeted assassinations, but on the other, what have until recently been seen as toys, model aircraft (PDF). In fact, in a recent court ruling regarding the FAA’s authority to regulate UAS, the judge found that the agency’s definition was so broad as to include paper airplanes and toy gliders, a definition that he ultimately rejected (PDF, pp. 2–3).
Similarly, FAA has made little distinction between different types of uses and users of “drones.” Anything deemed by the agency to be commercial (PDF), including beer delivery, photography, or journalism, is said to be illegal. Recently, the FAA has said that even activities that are not commercial are also considered illegal, in this case the use of a model aircraft to aid in search and rescue operations.
Media discourse has largely followed the FAA’s lead. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Whatever the case, as the use of the now iconic Predator drone as a surveillance and strike platform has caught the attention of the public and politicians, “drone” has become an object of fear. This fear has extended to model aircraft with increasing calls for legislation and regulation of their use.
In the case of cybersecurity, I have noted the important role that hypothetical scenarios have played in raising fear and, thus, motivating a policy response. Often, these take the form of “cyber doom scenarios” in which a fictional cyber attack destroys or seriously disrupts critical infrastructure. These scenarios often hinge on the use of analogies and metaphors of war and natural disaster, in particular Pearl Harbor, 9/11, nuclear war, and Hurricane Katrina.
A recent article in Salon hypothesized about the possibility that “the next attack” could come from “an explosive-stuffed model airplane guided by GPS.” The article warns, “America has smart bombs and drones. Others could create something as deadly with a remote-controlled car and camera.” It does not, however, provide any evidence to support its implicit or explicit claims. Instead, it merely provides a history of U.S. attempts to create remotely controlled aircraft and guided munitions of sufficient military value. In fact, instead of providing evidence that the United States’ enemies are creating weaponized drones, the article seems to recommend that they should do so. “A better R&D strategy for America’s enemies,” it says, “would be to develop robotic IEDs that combine off-the-shelf technologies—an explosive-stuffed model airplane guided by GPS, for example, or an IED built using a radio-controlled car with a video camera in its nose.” None of this serves as evidence that a model airplane packed with explosives can in any way be “as deadly” as a Predator firing Hellfire missiles, or that terrorists are actually interested in or capable of carrying out such attacks.
In cases employing appeals to cyber doom or “drone doom,” hypothetical scenarios are used because relevant, real-world events have not yet been damaging enough to motivate the kind of response that advocates of change wish to see implemented.
In addition to raising the level of fear by resorting to hypthetical doom scenarios, when relevant, real-world events do occur, their impacts are often exaggerated. In the case of cybersecurity, we have seen this with some of the most prominent and large-scale examples of cyber attack. For example, some compared the 2007 denial of service attacks against Estonia to nuclear war when, in reality, a more “real-world comparison might be if an army invaded a country, then all got in line in front of people at the DMV so they couldn’t renew their licenses.” Recent research even indicates that Stuxnet, the joint U.S.-Israel cyber attack against Iranian nuclear facilities, which has been hailed as the first example of a cyber attack to have physical, real-world impacts of strategic importance, was not nearly as effective as we were initially led to believe.
Likewise, of the thousands of terrorist incidents that occur worldwide each year, few if any involve the use of model airplanes. The State Department’s 2012 report on worldwide terrorism incidents, for example, makes no mention of model airplanes. As far as I can tell, there have only been a handful of identified plots where terrorists contemplated using model aircraft. All of them were foiled, as was the most recently reported case of the Morrocan man in Connecticut. One report even indicates that the FBI will not be charging the man for a terrorist plot after all.
Nonetheless, in each case, including this most recent one, news reports and commentaries speculated about whether terrorism with model airplanes might be the next big threat. Without actual events, the importance of the meager number of failed attempts that have occurred is exaggerated and they become fuel for yet more speculation and hypothetical scenarios. Though these few incidents may not provide evidence that such threats are probable, the are used as evidence that they are possible, which is enough for many to call for precautionary action to prevent their realization, however unlikely.
In the case of cybersecurity, it has become increasingly clear that the United States is one of the chief perpetrators of the kinds of cyber threats it has pinned on others for years. In psychology, this is what is known as “projection” and involves seeing in others the thoughts, desires, feelings, beliefs, or actions that you yourself harbor but do not wish to acknowledge. The tendency for the United States to engage in projection regarding cyber threats became evident as early as June 2012 with revelations that it was behind the Stuxnet attack on Iran. The tendency has been overwhelmingly confirmed over the last year as revelations from the Snowden leaks made it clear that the United States has engaged in practically all the activities it has pinned on others for years.
Similarly, much of the news coverage and commentary about possible terrorist use of model-airplanes-cum-“drones” implies that since the United States uses drones (e.g. Predators) as weapons against others, we should, therefore, expect that others will use drones (e.g. model aircraft) as weapons against us. This is the rationale behind a January 2013 piece in Time warning that “criminals and terrorists can fly drones too.” The article opened by reminding readers of the United States’ use of drones in surveillance and assassination missions before going on to discuss a failed terrorist plot to use a “drone,” in this case a model airplane, to carry out an attack on the U.S. Capitol and Pentagon. Likewise, the article in Salon mentioned above was premised on the idea that “America has smart bombs and drones. Others could create something as deadly with a remote-controlled car and camera.”
In short, concern over possible use of drones against us is a projection of our own fear that the “golden rule” might actually be applied to us, that others might do to us what we have been doing to them. While this might be a valid moral concern, it is not evidence of an actual threat.
In cybersecurity, we have witnessed a level of fear that has seemingly warranted putting the military, via the National Security Agency, in charge of cybersecurity, various attempts to pass legislation, some of which would further erode privacy, and the overzealous prosecution of anyone deemed to be a “hacker.” The ironic effect has been to make the United States less secure in cyberspace and to harm the international standing of its information technology industry.
Similarly, the FAA has overreacted by attempting to impose a blanket ban on anything it deems to be a commerical UAS, which, as I noted above, includes everything from a model airplane up to a military Predator. It has gone after operators of what amount to little more than toys, attempting to fine one operator of a four and a half pound styrofoam airplane $10,000. In over a dozen other cases, it has sent cease and desist letters to operators of model aircraft for engaging in photography. It has even implied that it could take legal action against a news outlet for publishing donated video taken by a model aircraft flown by private citizens, which is very likely an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech. Some have warned that while the military uses of the technology are flourishing, the civilian industry, where the technology might be put to more socially beneficial uses, is languishing under the FAA’s purported ban.
I readily acknowledge the dangers posed by drones. They are potentially counterproductive when used as a tool for targeted killing of suspected terrorists. It is disturbing that they have been identified as an important node in the NSA’s system of mass surveillance. Given their demonstrated use as a tool for mass surveillance, I am supportive of legislation making its way through many state legislatures that would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using drones for surveillance. I also acknowledge that there is real potential for safety concerns as the number of UASs, both large and small, begin to fill the domestic airpsace. Sensible regulations are appropriate.
But thus far, sensible regulations based on a nuanced understanding of the technological devices and uses to be regulated is not what we have. Instead, we have an attempt by the FAA to institute a blanket ban on everything from children’s toys up to Predator drones. This overreaction is underpinned by irrational and misplaced fear, including the fear of terrorist use of model aircraft, as well as the fear that comes from conflating military drones with the small model aircraft used most often in emerging civilian applications of this technology.
But the FAA’s purported ban does little if anything to address Americans’ actual fears related to drones, which revolve primarily around government use of this technology. That is, the ironic effect of fear sparked by government use of armed surveillance drones combined with threat inflation about terrorist use of model aircraft has been an increase in government control of the technology, enforcement actions that seem to be focused primarily against First Amendment-related use of drones, as well as enforcement that stifles innovation in the nascent UAS industry in the United States.
We must reject threat inflation surrounding domestic “drones” if we are to find any use for this technology beyond those that frighten people the most (i.e. surveillance and targeted killing). Otherwise, we will have a situation in which “drones” are only available for these uses while being prohibited for more socially beneficial uses. That is, threat inflation and irrational fear could lead to a world in which the government can use Predators and their equivalent for surveillance and assassination, while prohibiting private individuals and groups from using model airplanes to find lost children and puppies. That is not the future that we should court for this technology.