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To drone or not to drone

The Obama administration has no doubt about it. "It" being the legality or otherwise of using drones in tribal Pakistan and some other countries to kill those dubbed as Al-Qaeda suspects.

"The Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of attack," said Mr John Brennan, a top counter-terrorist aide to the President, quickly adding that the drone programme was legal, ethical, proportional and saved US lives.

Case closed for Brennan. Others will undoubtedly have a different opinion.

Drones are not only controversial in the United States. Following the upgrading of the hunters vs. bird lovers conflict (or are it bird lovers versus hunters?) to the electronic era, the drone controversy has hit our shores (or is it more proper to say air-space?)

A drone or, in plainer language, a jablo radio-controlled plane weighing around half a kilogramme and equipped with a high resolution camera was used by the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, CABS, to spy on hunters. A number of various illegal trapping sites on private land were exposed. One up for CABS! But please remember li t-tigrija sal-barkun!

Our indigenous brand of hunters – unlike the Al-Qaeda warriors hunted in Pakistan – was not to be easily outfoxed. The drone invaded hunters' privacy but it did something much worse than that. It was a direct challenge to the core of their masculinity, that is the ability to aim high. The drone was slightly damaged on its maiden flight only to be blasted out of the sky on the second day. The disaster (for CABS) and the triumph (for the hunters) happened in the vicinity of Żonqor Point in Marsascala and according to police sources the plane has still not been found.

This was only the beginning of the controversy. Invasion of privacy, shouted one side. What happens in public is a legitimate target for the camera, responded the other side. Foreign interference, insisted the hunters. A sign of intra-species solidarity was the retort of CABS.

Legal eagles were flown in to give their expert advice. Bureaucrats were quizzed to take a position. People vox-pop(ed) about their studied stances. The controversy will go on.

It is not in any way a fatuous controversy. We are filmed wherever we go: on public roads; in supermarkets, in places of work ... The list goes on. I invite my readers to try and list how often is one filmed during a day. Should we also be further filmed from the skies? (Google maps already do it.)

This drone thing is becoming big business and therefore an attraction to the academic communities in many countries, particularly the United States.

These last few days the Electronic Frontier Foundation forced the Federal Aviation Administration to reveal that it had approved 25 universities to fly drones in U.S. airspace. Kansas State University created a degree in unmanned aviation. The military are all ears and fund research. Drone technology can be used in disaster management and weed encroachment, among many the nicer things the drones are used for. Research is also pushing for drones powered by Smart Phones!

Congress' Unmanned Vehicle caucus estimates that drone technology will create 23,000 new jobs in the next 10 years in the USA, a figure considered by some to be too low.

But jobs is not all there is to it.

Joanne Gabrynowicz, the director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at Ole Miss, that "the American public is beginning to wake up to the fact that they're tracked by so many technologies. ... So when people say the threat to privacy from drones is overblown, I say, not if you put it in the context of browsers, cellphones and GPS systems. The interest in drones is just part of this critical mass of interest in tracking. Universities are going to have to address that along with the technology's many possibilities."

Research in such things is very important. However, privacy issues have to be clearly addressed. Spying on weeds is one thing while filming hunters or other private individuals who may be on their private business on their private lands is quite another. Nobody wants to be spied on.

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