As drones — otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — become increasingly popular in military operations and civilian law enforcement, their deployment is coming under greater scrutiny from lawmakers and special interest groups. The Obama administration's open policy of targeted drone strikes has proved particularly controversial, while the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has attempted to raise awareness of the use of drones by police departments and other organizations across the US.
May 12, 2013Read Article >
As the US military discovers just how useful drones can be, it's eager to keep them flying as long as can be, and the US Office of Naval Research now has a drone that can fly for two whole days. The Ion Tiger, an experimental surveillance plane that uses a hydrogen fuel cell as its power source, flew for a record 26 hours using pressurized hydrogen back in 2009, but late last month it managed a full 48 hours and one minute thanks to a new cryogenic storage tank filled with liquid hydrogen. That's not the only way to keep lightweight aircraft flying for lengthy periods, as laser beams and solar panels have recently shown, but the hydrogen could allow planes to fly further afield and at more flexible hours of the day than the other solutions.
May 10, 2013
As the US continues to grapple with the idea of letting drones fly through the country's airspace, our neighbors to the north have reported a new milestone for unmanned aerial technology: the first life saved using a drone. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the province of Saskatchewan announced yesterday that they successfully used the small Draganflyer X4-ES helicopter drone to locate and treat an injured man whose car had flipped over in a remote, wooded area in near-freezing temperatures. Zenon Dragan, president and founder of the Draganfly company that makes the drone, said in a statement: "to our knowledge, this is the first time that a life may have been saved with the use of a sUAS (small Unmanned Aerial System) helicopter."Read Article >
The injured driver, whose name has not been released, managed to call 911 from his mobile phone, but he didn't know his location and couldn't guide emergency responders to him. Police deployed a regular, manned helicopter equipped with night vision to try and find him, but they weren't able to in an initial sweep of the area. After several hours without any sign of the accident victim, they decided to try a Draganflyer drone with an infrared camera, flying it toward the last recorded location from his cell phone's GPS. Check out video of the harrowing rescue from the RCMP below:
May 1, 2013
A United Nations report published online this week says the UN should get countries of the world to suspend development of robotic, fully automated weapons systems until "such time as an internationally agreed upon framework" is reached. The report was prepared by Christof Heyns, a UN human rights lawyer, and its due to be debated at the UN Human Rights Council later this month. Still, the current version of the report provides a window into the UN's thinking on what will come next after an era of remotely piloted drones, presenting an alarming vision of a dystopian near future. "Tireless war machines, ready for deployment at the push of a button, pose the danger of permanent (if low-level) armed conflict," Heyns writes in the report.Read Article >
Apr 23, 2013
The US military is due to pull most combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But after that, an armed American presence could remain over Afghan skies, depending on what agreement for continuing operations is reached between the US and Afghanistan. Air Force Major General H.D. Polumbo, Jr, told reporters at the Pentagon today that drones, including armed unmanned aerial vehicles operated by the US, will likely continue to be used to support the Afghan army's operations through 2014 and probably on into 2015. “You’ll have that hybrid ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] as I call it, that armed ISR, remotely piloted aircraft capability all the way through ’14," Polumbo is quoted by Danger Room, later adding "you will likely see it into 2015 to provide force protection."Read Article >
Polumbo didn't specify how many drones would be available for this post-Afghanistan war phase, nor which specific models would be used if approved. But the Air Force previously released statistics indicating that there were upwards of 400 drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2012 — nearly 11 percent of the total number of air strikes — and over 200 US drone strikes in the country each year from 2009 through 2011, as Danger Room reported. The military stopped publishing drone strike statistics for Afghanistan separately earlier this year, saying the report "disproportionately focused" on drone strikes and that strikes constituted only about three percent of overall drone flights, the rest reconnaissance or other types of missions. Still, with the Defense Department curbing spending on drones in its 2014 budget, any drones used for continuing operations will have to be those already on deck or in the pipeline.
Apr 16, 2013
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is appealing a January decision that allowed the CIA to withhold details of its drone targeted killing program. In a statement given to Wired, Hina Shamsi, the ACLU National Security Project director explained that "the targeted killing program raises serious questions about government power in a constitutional democracy."Read Article >
Last week, McClatchy released evidence from secret documents that showed the extent of US drone killings. The evidence showed that, despite CIA assertions to the contrary, the targeted killing program was not restricted to high-level targets; according to McClatchy, "at least" 265 of the 482 people killed in the 12-month period ending September 2011 were "unknown extremists."
Apr 15, 2013
A new medal that had been proposed by former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in February, to honor the exceptional achievements of US combat drone pilots and cyber soldiers, was downgraded today by his successor to a "distinguishing device" that can only be attached to other medals. "When I came into office, concerns were raised to me about the Distinguished Warfare Medal’s order of precedence by veterans’ organizations, members of Congress, and other stakeholders whose views are valued by this department’s leadership," said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a statement released this afternoon, acknowledging the open controversy surrounding the creation of the new medal.Read Article >
Apr 10, 2013
The White House today published President Obama's proposal for the 2014 federal budget, and amid spending cuts across various departments, one area stands out: the President's budget calls for $526.6 billion in defense spending, down $3.9 billion from the year before. Spending on drones by all branches of the military is down by exactly $1.3 billion from the year before, to $2.5 billion for 2014. Among the cuts proposed for the Department of Defense's budget are a "termination" of new orders of Global Hawk reconnaissance drones used by the Air Force, which should save $324 million.Read Article >
Over at Danger Room, Spencer Ackerman points out that the decline in drone spending is a trend that's been going on for actually the past several years, highlighting how the Air Force cut its purchase of new armed Reaper drones in half to 24 last year and proposing another halving this time around, to 12 new models. Ackerman also runs down the list of drops in other drone orders from the various branches for 2014. Still, the news that the Pentagon is slowing down its acquisition of new unmanned aerial vehicles doesn't mean that it won't continue to lean on the arsenal it already has, meaning that even with less new hardware, the death toll from drone strikes is likely to continue to rise.
Apr 10, 2013
Top-secret documents acquired by McClatchy have revealed the extent of US drone usage. Despite previous claims that drones were used for "targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists," it's now clear that the unmanned aircraft are being used far more widely. According to McClatchy's Jonathan Landay, at least 265 of the 482 people the CIA killed over a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were assessed to be "unknown extremists;" a far cry from the targeted campaign that counterterrorism adviser (and new CIA chief) John Brennan revealed last year.Read Article >
In Brennan's 2012 speech, he publicly acknowledged the administration's use of armed drones for the first time, saying the attacks were "in full accordance with the law — and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives." Although Brennan hammered home the focus on Al Qaeda targets — mentioning the terrorist organization 73 times — he did say that other legitimate targets could be potential attackers who are actively training or militants with skills like bomb-making. With that additional justification, and without precise knowledge of those that were targeted by drones, it's difficult to condemn the more extensive campaign entirely, but it seems fair to say that Brennan's original disclosure was at the least disingenuous.
Mar 24, 2013
Governmental use of unmanned surveillance drones has inspired a lot of concern about privacy, but New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks the battle's already over. In a radio interview this week, Bloomberg said essentially that drones are an inevitable part of our future (and maybe our present), comparing them to the thousands of cameras already located around Manhattan. "What's the difference whether the drone is up in the air or on the building?" he asked. "We're going into a different world, uncharted... you can't keep the tide from coming in."Read Article >
Striking a tone more of resignation than endorsement, Bloomberg said that our future includes more visibility and less privacy. Face recognition will be integrated into the drone surveillance, and he wondered aloud whether a drone is that much more invasive than someone standing outside your home. Bloomberg did say legislation is necessary, but warned against hasty action, saying "these are long-term, serious problems."
Mar 20, 2013
National privacy laws aren't ready to handle the 10,000 commercial drones predicted to be flying around in US airspace by 2020, nor the surveillance drones that some local police and US law enforcement agencies are using already and that many more are seeking. That's the conclusion voiced by US Senators and various expert witnesses during a hearing on domestic drone usage this morning.Read Article >
"We need to do more to prevent drones from being used in an invasive manner that violates Americans' privacy rights," said Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on privacy, later adding that he hoped his fellow lawmakers would "continue to work with me on appropriate legislation" to govern drone usage in the US. Already, several members of the House of Representatives have introduced bills targeted at imposing restrictions on drone usage.
Mar 15, 2013
The Central Intelligence Agency must publicly declare whether or not it has documents on drone strikes carried out by the US government, and if so, must explain why it can keep those documents hidden from the public, according to a new ruling today by an appeals court in Washington, DC. The ruling, which was made in response to a three-year-old Freedom of Information Act request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, doesn't mean that the CIA will have to turn over any drone documents themselves, but it does force the agency to at least acknowledge that it has intelligence on US drone strikes, which it's been reluctant to do so far in official court filings.Read Article >
Mar 13, 2013
The US Senate Committee on the Judiciary has called two hearings on the most controversial uses of unmanned aerial vehicles. The hearings, chaired by Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), will address both privacy concerns raised by drone use within the US and what limits can be placed on targeted killings, often using drones. While some details have not yet been released, the hearings seem to be responding both to general concern over drone use and to a 12-hour filibuster by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) in protest of Obama's drone warfare program.Read Article >
The first hearing, led by Leahy, is titled "The Future of Drones in America: Law Enforcement and Privacy Considerations" and will be held on March 20th. It will focus on whether drone surveillance, particularly by law enforcement or emergency responders, could erode privacy and civil liberties. While the FAA is currently devising guidelines for the use of unmanned planes in US airspace and police across the country have considered drones as remote surveillance devices, privacy concerns have sparked a social and legislative backlash.
Mar 12, 2013
The Department of Defense is temporarily stopping production of the Distinguished Warfare Medal while it reviews complaints, the Associated Press reports. According to an unnamed government official, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of the medal, which was announced last month. Unlike other medals of its type, the Distinguished Warfare Medal would be awarded for exceptional accomplishments that do not involve "acts of valor" or bodily risk; it's meant to reward achievement in things like cyberwarfare or drone warfare.Read Article >
Mar 10, 2013
Data on the monthly number of American drone strikes in Afghanistan has been quietly scrubbed from public records, reports The Air Force Times. Last October, the Air Force began releasing the monthly totals of strikes in Afghanistan in an effort to give the public more information on its overseas operations. But the move appears to have been reversed. The February numbers released March 7th just contain empty boxes for the drone strike data, and all of the previous data has also been deleted from older press releases on the site. Metadata in the files indicates that the revised versions were all created on the same day, February 22nd. Interestingly, the Defense Department says it wasn't involved in the decision to remove the statistics.Read Article >
Scrutiny of American drone operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere continues to build. Last month, a United Nations report that the number of drone strikes increased 72 percent in 2012, and last week Senator Rand Paul filibustered John Brennan's CIA confirmation for 12 hours to draw attention to US drone policy.
Mar 8, 2013
After being delayed by a 12-hour long filibuster, the Senate has finally confirmed counterterrorism advisor and US intelligence veteran John Brennan as the head of the CIA in a 63-34 vote. While the result was largely expected, Brennan faced heavy resistance for his role in the Obama administration's drone program, which has used unmanned aerial vehicles in the covert extrajudicial killing of terrorism suspects abroad, including American citizens. Along with the President, Brennan is responsible for overseeing the secret kill list (or "disposition matrix") which the administration uses to determine targets for drone strikes in the Middle East and Asia.Read Article >
The filibuster, led by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, didn't focus on Brennan himself, but rather staged a prolonged, mostly symbolic attack on the unaccountable and secretive drone program, which has greatly expanded in the years since the Bush administration. During his confirmation hearing in January, Brennan deftly dodged questions about the Obama administration's justifications for the targeted killing of American citizens using drones, which cited the 2011 killing of American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman. The questions came just after the leak of a confidential Justice Department memo which contained a legal argument for killing Americans that broadly redefined an "imminent" attack to include any threat of harm to the US which may or may not occur in the near future.
Mar 6, 2013
As the Senate prepares to confirm John Brennan as CIA director, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is filibustering the vote over the Obama Administration's policy on drone strikes. Paul has said that he will speak "until the President responds" to his questions over whether he will order targeted killing of Americans within US borders. "Mr. President, come clean, come forward, and say you will not kill Americans on American soil," Paul said on the Senate floor, comparing the policy of allowing strikes without trial to British abuses of power before the Revolutionary War. "I'm not saying the president is a bad person at all, but he's not a judge. he's a politician... We're allowing him to be the judge, and we're allowing him to be the jury."Read Article >
Mar 5, 2013
In a letter to Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Attorney General Eric Holder said that the President could theoretically order lethal strikes within American borders under "extraordinary circumstance." In February, Paul had written to proposed CIA director John Brennan, asking whether the Obama Administration could order drone strikes or other targeted killings of Americans on American soil without trial. As Obama has said before, Holder was clear that "the US government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so... The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no President will ever have to confront."Read Article >
Holder refused, however, to rule out situations in which the President could order a strike. "It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the President could conceivably have no choice" but to authorize strikes in the case of a second Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attack, in which case Holder would "examine the particular fact and circumstances before advising the President on the scope of his authority."
Mar 2, 2013
The Department of Homeland Security's border patrol drones are outfitted to distinguish armed subjects from unarmed ones and to potentially intercept communications signals. Earlier this week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center received a redacted document from the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection through the Freedom of Information Act, showing the performance specifications of Predator drones that are used to patrol the US border. Later, CNET found an unredacted copy. Among other things, the specifications include a surveillance system that is "capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not (based on position of arms)."Read Article >
Besides the visual surveillance system, border patrol drones also incorporate interception of wireless signals. Though use cases aren't specified, the drone should be able to detect multiple signals and communication links for direction-finding, and also to include a "signals intercept airborne suite" that can pick up a range of spectrum. While detecting weapons makes sense in light of how law enforcement sees drones as a way to watch for potential criminals without putting its own people on the line, signal interception opens up new and unsettling surveillance opportunities, especially as drones become more common.
Feb 24, 2013Read Article >
The Obama Administration hasn't just downplayed drone strikes — according to former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, it directed him to avoid mentioning the program altogether. "When I went through the process of becoming press secretary, one of the first things they told me was 'You're not even to acknowledge the drone program. You're not even to discuss that it exists,'" Gibbs told MSNBC's Chris Hayes. Gibbs went on to call the decision "inherently crazy," saying that "you're being asked a question based on reporting of a program that exists."
Feb 22, 2013
A recently-translated Al-Qaeda document published by The Associated Press outlines 22 helpful hints for evading or taking down US drones, ranging from radio silence to jamming communications equipment with an "ordinary water-lifting dynamo fitted with a 30-meter copper pole." The list was originally published on an extremist website in Arabic in 2011, and has been republished several times online, but has remained unreported in English. One suggestion — to "hide under thick trees" — is believed to have been written by Osama bin Laden. Another hint involves using a Russian device called a "sky grabber" to "infiltrate the drone's waves and frequencies."Read Article >
AP reporters found a Xeroxed copy of the document in Timbuktu, Mali, after militants fled the area last year. The US has been working to establish a new drone base in nearby Niger, the AP reports, and the document — written by al-Qaeda commander Abdallah bin Muhammad — shows that the group was preparing to deal with the increased presence. While some of the suggestions would be more helpful than others, Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton insists, "these are not dumb techniques. It shows that they are acting pretty astutely." Here is the list in full:
Feb 20, 2013
An annual report on armed conflict in Afghanistan released this week by the United Nations claims that drone operations in the country expanded significantly last year. The report says that unmanned vehicles released 506 weapons in 2012, up from 294 in 2011 — a 72 percent increase. The news comes on the heels of President Obama's State of the Union speech, in which he announced that 34,000 additional US troops would be brought home from the country, and that "by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over." Fewer troops abroad, however, doesn't necessarily mean an end to US military actions abroad; the president's modernized defense strategy has emphasized cyber attacks and covert drone wars in the Middle East and Asia.Read Article >
The report, which focuses on civilian casualties, says that drones were not a significant contributor to civilian casualties. Drone attacks in Afghanistan are said to have resulted in 16 civilian deaths and three injuries in 2012, up from just one documented incident in 2011. Some of those attacks were the result of "targeting errors," including one strike that killed four children who were several kilometers away from a battle between insurgents and pro-government forces.The UN says that a review of "tactical and operational policy relating to targeting" may be "of particular relevance" as the use of drones in Afghanistan increases.
Feb 18, 2013
On September 30th, 2015, the FAA is scheduled to complete its Congressional mandate to authorize unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial use in US airspace — a somewhat ominous milestone next to its estimation that by the end of the decade, American skies will be home to around 30,000 remote control aircraft. It's hard to imagine what that will be like because for most people, drones — as we've taken to calling them — simply aren't "real" yet. We still don't know when they can kill us or where they can spy on us. And we’ve barely scratched the surface of what they'll be doing aside from killing and spying.Read Article >
More importantly, we're having trouble figuring out exactly what drones are in the first place: The State's Adam Rothstein submits that what we call a "drone" — which lumps military killing machines together with toy helicopters — isn't "real" at all. Rather, it's a fictitious characterization comprised of "a collection of thoughts, feelings, isolated facts, and nebulous paranoias," reacting to the rapid accumulation of augmentative technologies like cellphone cameras, GPS, and ubiquitous wireless communication networks. Therefore, he argues, whenever we talk or write about unmanned flying machines used to see or attack from a distance, we are by necessity crossing into the realm of fiction.
Feb 16, 2013
The leak of a confidential memo detailing the US government's justifications for drone strikes on American citizens opened the floodgates for new criticism of the Obama administration's secretive counterterrorism program. Now members of Congress have outlined a bill that would ban the use of weaponized drones within the United States, and put restrictions on law enforcement's ability to use them in surveillance operations.Read Article >
The proposed bill, called the "Preserving American Privacy Act" (PDF) comes from Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), and is being co-sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a privacy-minded Congresswoman and noted SOPA opponent who is also leading the latest attempts to reform draconian computer crime laws in the wake of Aaron's Swartz's death. As written, it would ban police from operating unmanned aerial vehicles armed with weapons of any kind, and any drone surveillance operation would require a warrant notifying the target within 10 days, except when the notice would "jeopardize" an investigation. It also requires they make efforts to "minimize" the amount of data collected or shared, to avoid violating privacy unnecessarily. Poe attempted to pass similar legislation last year which limited surveillance to investigating felonies, but the bill died in committee with 26 co-sponsors.
Feb 15, 2013
The FAA is announcing that it's moving ahead with plans to test drone flights at six locations in the USA. The sites were required as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act that the administration signed into law a year ago, mandating that changes be made to incorporate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into national airspace.Read Article >
The site locations haven't yet been decided — the competition is expected to finish later this month — but while some are lauding the announcement for its potential to help with things like search and rescue and disaster response, others are concerned about the privacy implications. EPIC filed a lengthy petition last year asking for a public rulemaking on the privacy impact of aerial drones, which the FAA now says it intends to address through "engagement and collaboration with the public."
Feb 13, 2013
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced a new medal for troops who fight from behind a screen. According to unnamed officials, the "Distinguished Warfare Medal" will honor members of the military who have performed an accomplishment "so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from comrades or from other persons in similar situations." Unlike other medals of its level, though, it doesn't require an "act of valor" that would put one's life in danger during combat. That means it can be given to drone pilots or members of military cyberwarfare operations.Read Article >