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After Transforming Warfare, Drones Set to Enter the Domestic Scene

BY Julia Wetherell | Monday, February 4 2013

A commercially available Quadrocopter drone (Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of modern conveniences have shadowy military roots — think the Internet and the microwave oven – but could drones soon be making an appearance at backyard BBQs and small-town police stations near you? Lev Grossman writes in Time this week that a domestic drone future is on the horizon for the US — and that it may arrive before the government or civilians can work out the ethical and constitutional implications of their use.

Drone warfare on the northwest border of Pakistan — where 362 strikes have been made since 2004, over 300 under the Obama administration alone — has created unease and outrage in the international community and in the US for its killing of civilians. Yet with the Air Force currently prioritizing training for drone operators over fighter pilots, this is likely the future face of American warfare.

Grossman writes that cheap, ever-evolving drone technology will soon seduce non-military sectors — from agriculture to real estate to pizza delivery. Law enforcement agencies may be among the first to benefit, if they aren’t already; last spring the Electronic Frontier Foundation successfully sued the FAA to release the names of groups holding domestic drone licenses, including may local police departments. Grossman quotes a congressional report on domestic drone use that says the “sophistication” of their surveillance abilities “may remove drones from [the] traditional Fourth Amendment framework” that protects citizens from unwarranted search. As structure of the seen and unseen, Grossman says the drone landscape of the future fits well into a tech paradigm we’re already pretty used to:

It's roughly analogous to interacting with an anonymous commenter on a blog: you're dealing with someone who is both present and absent, who has decided that what they say or do will have consequences for you but not for them. Drones bring that asymmetrical dynamic out into the real world: a drone is the physical avatar of the virtual presence of a real person.

The anonymous commenter allegory works well; at least four alleged drone operators outed themselves as Redditors last week when they did a Q&A for members of the site; one compared his job to Call of Duty, which, like many video games, is already acting as a training ground for American soldiers.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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