Advances in predator drone technology complicate privacy rights, ethics of war

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been key in helping research national defense projects for decades. While the agency was formed to help thwart the threat of Communist Russia as it surprised us with technologies such as Sputnik, these days DARPA is hard at work figuring out new ways to fight terrorism, with hints of science fiction here and there. The latest initiative from DARPA, named ARGUS (Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System), rewrites the rules of surveillance, and may make you cling a little tighter to your tinfoil hat. ARGUS is an unmanned aerial vehicle, which allows the U.S. to view any object six inches or longer from a cruising altitude of 20,000 feet.

ARGUS is the latest in a long line of new technology being developed specifically for drone warfare. If you’ve paid any attention to the War on Terror over the last decade, then you already know that it has been revolutionized by the power of drone technology. While conventional warfare is something we all have been taught about in history class, the problem with our constant conflict with terrorism is that is unending and borderless. This constant conflict has subsequently led to a persistent feeling of paranoia about how terrorism can appear anywhere, and from almost any source. As a result, our national defense has become heavily focused on thwarting terrorism from whatever direction it may come, ushering in our modern era of drone warfare.

Drone warfare is unique in that it removes the need for a human military presence from most environments, whether it be for surveillance or for engagement. This has led to some serious ethical questions being raised about our use of technology in warfare. The ability to be in battle without “being” in battle is a luxury that every soldier or general would enjoy. However, the issue remains that we are not living in an era with the threat of war on our doorstep. International relations are so fundamental, and cultural communication so concrete, that it’s difficult to perceive, in a day like ours, one in which brinkmanship was all that stood between peace and war. More importantly, the issue that remains also is that this technology has the potential to be used not only by us, but against us.

Perhaps what concerns most people is that technology like drones invites the surveillance society to our doorstep. While recent advancements in drone tech—such as being able to shoot down missiles with drones—create new opportunities to keep people secure, critics question the ethics of such devices and their ability to constantly observe our activities. Like the start of a good dystopian novel, the ability to be constantly observed by our government unsettles the majority of the population, whether or not they will admit it.

ARGUS is simply the most recent step in a long line of drone enhancements over the past couple of decades. What is especially unique is that it allows a wide sweeping view of an area—about 30 square miles—to be covered by a single vehicle with extreme precision. While it is not the same as being right above their heads, it gives a monitor the ability to observe the inner workings of a city, and track threats to society to the source. Then again, a drone has no understanding of what is or is not a moral or fundamental threat to society. As we continue to develop more powerful drones, we offer new methods of observation and reaction to our security agencies.

What matters the most, though, comes down to a cliché: With great power comes great responsibility. Drones are merely evolutionary for how we decide to invest in our military complex. While drones can increase our security, they also take one more level of privacy away from the individual. ARGUS has yet to be deployed, and just where it will be deployed is classified, but the interests of the United States and its national security will likely follow wherever it finds itself flying. In reality we cannot just turn our backs to new technology when it shows us some ugly truth. We cannot criticize our advancements when the only direction is to look forward. In the end it is up to us as citizens to communicate clearly with our government to ensure that its powers be kept in check. We cannot blame the technology and its implications, but we can blame ourselves for choosing the people who are put behind the controls.


—Josh Sherman ‘16 is a student at Vassar College.

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