Earlier this year, I participated as an expert panelist in the public rollout phase of the European Union commissioned project TACTICS – Tactical Approach to Counter Terrorists in Cities. This included giving an interview to RAND Europe as they collected external expertise and context for the study’s findings on the potential of drones for police and domestic counter terrorist applications, which they were kind enough to share with me afterwards.
What is your professional background?
I teach at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, where I’m a lecturer in International Relations. I also teach at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I teach largely cyber power and national security issues: how digital technology is affecting power relations, security and privacy. My professional interest in drones is not focused on policy advocacy of drones, but on issues such as why there are such rapid developments in commercial drone technologies, how that reflects the general democratization of technology we’re seeing in all sectors of the economy, and how that presents novel security challenges. I research tech trends in that area, lead an interdisciplinary research team working on these issues, and have worked with Dutch national government on drone detection and interception.
How is the public sector use of drone evolving?
The use of drones for police surveillance is in relatively early stages. The cases I’m most familiar with are in the United States. While I live in Germany, Germany doesn’t have much government use of surveillance drones domestically, as there is strong civil society resistance to use of drones by government in military and police applications. Most domestic applications are industrial, but they aren’t many government uses.
In the US, it started out very much from the perspective of simple platforms for observation; now they are being more professionalized and there is a trend towards the integration of more sophisticated sensors and machine vision. This is what you see in Washington DC area where they are testing airborne platforms with sophisticated cameras that can track many moving objects from the air in real time. It is being used for larger scale data collection and correlation. That seems to be the overall direction that drones are headed – integration of more sophisticated sensors and actuators, more sophisticated data collection capabilities, and incorporating them into smart city settings where you are integrating different types and sources of data into a common intelligence platform.
What is the private sector’s role in drone innovation?
The consumer and commercial drone market is advancing very quickly, and it’s an interesting area of the democratization of technology where the cost of these things is dropping very quickly, while the sophistication is rising very quickly. A few years ago, if you wanted to buy a drone, you would have either spent a lot of money, or a lot of time building your own. Now you go the corner electronics store, and you can buy a highly capable drone for a few hundred dollars. Even more sophisticated surveillance drones now cost tens of thousands of dollars, rather than hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What are the challenges for police departments in integrating this new technology?
There are a lot of organizational challenges in integrating a new tool into an existing workflow. Shotspotter is an interesting example; it seems like a straightforward technology, but when you hear reports from the police who are using it, it is not necessarily improving their response times or changing the way they police. It’s an open question as to whether that’s because the technology doesn’t add to their capabilities, or the organization has fixed ways of working and they’re slow and resistant to adopting innovations even if technology is capable and available.
Learning how to operate new technologies also requires time: if you want the coverage of the city, and actively collect data of human and vehicle movement, and correlate this information to crime reports – that requires training and sophisticated organizational capabilities. In fact, the sophisticated uses of drones is beyond the reach of most police departments at the moment, but not because the technology is out of reach.
Are drones effective tools for counter terrorism applications by domestic law enforcement?
As a domestic counter terrorist tool, I’m not sure. You might be able to assume that in the event of a terrorist incident, drone platforms could expand the reach of law enforcement capabilities in meaningful ways. In the US, you will find cases now where police departments are comparing the use of drones versus the use of helicopters – this draws interesting parallels, where the benefits of moving to a drone platform will be discussed. There is considerable talk about the cost that is involved with human operators and maintenance. Helicopters, of course, are a very expensive platform over time. If you can replace those capabilities with an inexpensive drone, and there is legislation supporting the application, you’ll start to see the shift. That said, I don’t imagine we’ll see drones being used for early warning of terrorist attacks in the domestic context anytime soon.
Are there civil liberties concerns?
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have argued against drone usage in a number of cases. The concerns come up when the drones employ an autonomous capacity that extends beyond what human operator can do (e.g. mass surveillance over wide area; long-term collection of data). These new questions arise and they are part of broader set of questions about how law enforcement is conducted in the digital age. At the crux of the privacy discussion is whether you want to have police agencies that are purely focused on enforcing the law – which is the traditional role – or use approaching law enforcement as crime prevention – which is what some in the US started doing on a large scale after 9/11 with counterterrorism aims. Crime response and crime prevention are very different models, especially when combined with autonomous systems that could incorporate artificial intelligence capabilities at some point. This would take law enforcement in a very different direction than it has traditionally been applied, and it’s hard to say what effect that would have on our societies in the long term.