Google may be one of the world's largest collectors of information, but Eric Schmidt thinks people would be uncomfortable with drone surveillance by their neighbors — and that this discomfort will spur tighter regulation. In an interview with The Guardian (available for subscribers only), Schmidt predicts that private drone operation will become a bigger issue in the coming years, for both weaponized and non-weaponized models. "If you look at the miniaturisation of drones, there will be restrictions on them," he says. "I'm not going to pass judgment on whether armies should exist, but I would prefer to not spread and democratise the ability to fight war to every single human being."
Schmidt gave a potential future scenario. "You're having a dispute with your neighbour. How would you feel if your neighbour went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their back yard. It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?" The question becomes odder when you consider that Google has faced lawsuits and criticism over its own Street View cars, which have collected not only photographs (from which faces are generally brushed out) but also data sent over Wi-Fi connections.
"How would you feel if your neighbour went over and bought a commercial observation drone?"
He insists, however, that Google can be trusted to work responsibly with technology, citing a "state of the art" facial recognition tool he says was scrapped because of both legal and privacy concerns. "Facial recognition, completely unmonitored, can be used for very bad things. It can be used for stalking, for example. You know, it's just we don't want to be part of that as a company. There are cases where facial recognition can be used, but they need to be fairly carefully boxed." Once a potentially dangerous technology is unleashed, he says, it becomes very difficult to turn off.
While it's possible to see Schmidt's comments as a contrast to Google's massive information-gathering, it's not precisely that he thinks data shouldn't be collected — he's more worried about it falling into the wrong hands. He supports the ideas of accountability behind WikiLeaks, for example, but not the implementation. "I was never able to determine any providence, god, religion, or so forth, that had appointed Julian Assange to be the person to make that decision, because it's a pretty weighty decision," he says. Connecting people with information may be a theoretical good, but Schmidt is clearly very cautious about what that means outside the confines of Google.