Interview: Drones for Police and Domestic Counter Terrorism Uses

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.

POLICE Drone 5

Police aerial surveillance drone. Photo Credit: John Giles/PA Wire

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.


Speaking at Mobile Convention Amsterdam – 4 June

For anyone in Amsterdam on June 4th, I will be speaking at Mobile Convention Amsterdam. MCA is one of the premier European events for mobile commerce, marketing and enterprise issues, and will feature speakers from Google, Twitter, IBM, Adobe, Forrester Research, and many more.

I’ll be speaking about how the competition between hierarchies and networks is reshaping the competitive environment for enterprises, and how this mobile-driven dynamic of networked communications is forcing us to rethink privacy and security. Hope to see you there!

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Interview from Mobile Convention Brussels

Many thanks to the great folks at Mobile Convention Brussels for a terrific event this past week. It was a welcome experience to learn about new mobile trends from experts in the field, and to see the work of very talented speakers like Christian Heilmann, who really help the audience rather than just pitching to them. Overall a welcome opportunity to learn and explore with top speakers and a motivated, engaged audience.

I spoke about the social side of privacy and security issues in the mobile world – my slides can be found here.

They also filmed a short interview after the presentation, where I had a chance to talk a bit more about privacy, security, and future trends in mobile:

Speaking at Mobile Convention Brussels – 27 Nov

I’ll be speaking during the Mobile Convention Brussels on the 27th of November about the growing importance of mobile privacy and security issues, alongside representatives from Google, Warner Bros, Uber, RTL, and many more.

The conference organizers interviewed me to promote the event, and you can find that here.

It should be a great event for anyone interested in exploring and understanding the future of the mobile landscape. I hope to see you there!

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Virtual Reality – Recommended Reading

Here’s a first stab at what I would consider good starting reading on virtual reality – both to get a sense of the topic from researchers and VR developers, as well as some defining visions of what virtual reality might become:


Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984) – A truly visionary work of science fiction that gave us the first fully realized imagining of cyberspace, and deeply influenced a generation of science fiction writers and researchers alike. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab says Neuromancer, “was without a doubt what inspired me to become a scholar of avatars… Large government grants have been awarded to me for building and testing Gibson’s ideas. Academic papers are improved by Gibson quotes that sum up the big ideas of the research. PhD students walk out of my office with a copy when searching for dissertation topics. Undergraduates who can’t imagine the world without the ‘cyberspace’ that Gibson predicted (or perhaps facilitated) grumble about my using it as a textbook in my lecture classes… Without Neuromancer, the world of virtual reality as a whole would look very different.”

Snow Crash, by Neil Stephenson (1992) – This was my first exposure to the cyberpunk genre, as an assigned reading in a 1995 undergraduate elective class on technology and society. Michael Abrash, formerly of Id Software and Valve fame, and now Chief Scientist at Oculus, describes the influence of Snow Crash this way, “It all started with Snow Crash. If I hadn’t read it and fallen in love with the idea of the Metaverse, if it hadn’t made me realize how close networked 3D was to being a reality, if I hadn’t thought I can do that, and more importantly I want to do that, I’d never have embarked on the path that eventually wound up at Valve.”

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2012) – Another hugely entertaining, imaginative vision of virtual reality, and influential for the latest generation of developers. Palmer Luckey recommends this to everyone at Oculus, and Ernest Cline is similarly a fan of the Rift. As he remarked on the difficulty of timing in science fiction writing after being invited to Oculus, “You’re often wrong when you try to predict the advancements of technology and in this case, I feel like I underestimated instead of overestimated, which is really exciting.”


Interview with Jaron Lanier on Virtual Reality, Whole Earth Review (1989) – An early interview with the so-called godfather of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier. Aside from being a great window into the astonishing range of thoughts Lanier has always had about the potential of VR, here he puts forward the argument that the real potential of VR is social: “Other people are the life of the party in Virtual Reality. Other people are the unique things that will animate Virtual Reality and make it astonishingly unpredictable and amazing.”

Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of our Virtual Lives, by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson (2011) – A fascinating tour of VR research by two top researchers in the field. This book focuses on how the human mind behaves in virtual environments, and the social and psychological issues that will become hot topics as VR becomes a mass market technology.

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: how body maps in your brain help you do (almost) everything better, by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee – recommended to me by virtual reality researcher (and new Oculus employee) Will Steptoe, this book delves into the emerging science of “body maps” – how your sense of self extends into the space around you and the objects you hold. Though not specifically focused on VR (though there is a special chapter on VR and body maps) the topic as a whole will be central to how effectively VR becomes an ’embodied’ form of both computing and cognition.

What would you add to the list? Comment below, and I’ll include any good suggestions in future iterations.

Journal article: Teaching International Relations with New Media

I’ve just published an article on teaching International Relations with new media in the German journal of IR, Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen.

The full text can be found here: ZiB 1/2014 – Teaching IR with New Media

My conclusion:

Our students will likely spend their lives increasingly reliant on the Internet, mobile computing and online social networks to navigate the complexities of their world. They will be entering a networked information economy that differs significantly from the industrial information economy that preceded it, and must develop news skills to cope with rapid increases in the volume, variety and velocity of information in society. They will be required to engage with new media spaces in order to make their voices heard in these new public forums, and a premium will be placed on their ability to meaningfully discover, make critical sense of, and contribute to knowledge flows.

As the complexity and speed of global communications continues to increase, digital information literacy will become a more challenging and more important skill set to acquire. Bridging their firsthand experience with the Internet, social networks and mobile devices with rigorous analysis of the social and political impacts of those forces is an exciting opportunity in International Relations teaching. Building this into the design of our classes creates the opportunity for learning and reflection by both teachers and students on many complex, important themes of the digital age.

It is important to help break down the traditional isolation of the university classroom by connecting students more deeply to ongoing academic debates, to their classmates and teachers through collaboration, and to the wider world outside the classroom through these new public spaces. Technology can facilitate the goal of university courses to step beyond their traditional role as centers of expert knowledge transfer, into more dynamic venues for the analysis, critique and collaborative creation of knowledge by students themselves. By taking this step we are more likely to see our students think rather than just learn, and we in turn are more likely to learn from them. In an era of accelerating technological disruption in every area of public life, we all have much to learn.

In the future…

In the future everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes.

– Andy Warhol


In the future everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.

– Banksy