Citizens' Issues
Public Interest Exclusive
Everything you ever wanted to know about drones

The US has used drone airstrikes to side-step legal arguments about the boundaries of the campaign against al Qaeda

Everyone is talking about drones. Also known as Unmanned Arial Vehicles, or UAVs, remote-piloted aircrafts have become a controversial centerpiece of the Obama administration's counter-terrorism strategy. Domestically, their surveillance power is being hyped for everything from fighting crime to monitoring hurricanes or spawning salmon. Meanwhile, concerns are cropping up about privacy, ethics and safety. We've rounded up some of the best coverage of drones to get you oriented. Did we miss anything? Let us know.

A Little History
The idea of unmanned flight had been around for decades, but it was in the 1990s, thanks to advances in GPS and computing, that the possibilities for drones really took off, as the New Yorker recently recounted. While hobbyists and researchers looked for uses for automated, airborne cameras, the military became the driving force behind drone developments. (This history from the Washington Post has more details) According to the Congressional Research Service, the military's cache of U.A.V.'s has grown from just a handful in 2001 to more than 7,000 today. This New York Times graphic shows the variety of drones currently employed by the military — from the famous missile-launching Predator to tiny prototypes shaped like hummingbirds.

This February, Congress cleared the way for far more widespread use of drones by businesses, scientists, police and still unknown others. The Federal Aviation Administration will release a comprehensive set of rules on drones by 2015.

The Shadow Drone War: Obama's Open Secret
As the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the Obama administration has escalated a mostly covert air war through clandestine bases in the US and other countries. Just this week, the administration's drone-driven national security policy was documented in this book excerpt by Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman and a New York Times article.

Both the CIA and military use drones for “targeted killings” of terrorist leaders. The strikes have been an awkward open secret, remaining officially classified while government officials mention them repeatedly. Obama admitted the program's existence in an online chat in February, and his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, gave a speech last month laying out the administration's legal and ethical case for drone strikes.

The crux of it is that they are a precise and efficient form of warfare. Piloted from thousands of miles away (here's an account from a base outside Las Vegas), they don't put US troops at risk, and, by the government's count, harm few civilians.

How Many Civilians Do Drone Strikes Kill?
Updated 5/31
Statistics are hard to nail down. The Long War Journal and the New America Foundation track strikes and militant and civilian deaths, drawing mainly on media reports with the caveat that they can't always be verified. The Long War Journal tallied 30 civilian deaths in Pakistan in 2011. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which also tracks drone strikes, consistently documents higher numbers of civilian deaths—for Pakistan in 2011, at least 75. Obama administration officials, the New York Times reported this week, have said that such deaths are few or in the "single digits."

But the Times, citing “counterterrorism officials,” also reported that the US classifies all military-age men in a drone strike zone to be militants, unless their innocence is proven after the attack. If that’s true, it raises questions about the government statistics on civilian casualties. One State Department official told the Times that the CIA might be overzealous in defining strike targets—he told them that “the joke was that when the CIA sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp”.

What about the Political Fallout?
The US has also used airstrikes to side-step legal arguments about the boundaries of the campaign against al Qaeda. Both Bush and Obama administration officials have argued that Congress’ September 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force extends to al Qaeda operatives in any country, with or without the consent of local governments.

Drone strikes are extremely unpopular in the countries where they're deployed. They've led to tense diplomatic maneuvers with Pakistan, and protests and radicalization in Yemen. Iraqis have also protested the State Department’s use of surveillance drones in their country.

Domestic concerns about civil liberties and due process in the secret air war were inflamed last fall, when a drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al Awlaki, an al Qaeda member and a US citizen. Weeks later, Awlaki's 16-year-old American son was also killed by a drone.

Costs and Crashes
Drones are cheap relative to most military manned planes, and they were a central feature of the Pentagon's scaled-back budget this year. But drones aren't immune from cost overruns. The latest version of the Global Hawk surveillance drone was put on the back-burner this January after years of expensive setbacks and questions about whether they were really better than the old U-2 spy planes they were slated to replace.

And while drones may not carry pilots, they can still crash. Wired has also reported on drones' susceptibility to viruses.

Another problem? The Air Force is playing catch-up trying to train people to fly drones and analyze the mountains of data they produce, forcing them to sometimes rely on civilian contractors for sensitive missions, according to the LA Times. The New York Times reported that in 2011, the Air Force processed 1,500 hours of video and 1,500 still images daily, much of it from surveillance drones. An Air Force commander admitted this spring that it would take "years" to catch up on the data they've collected.

Drones, Coming to America...
There are already a number of non-military entities that the FAA has authorized to fly drones, including a handful of local police departments. How drones might change police work is still to be determined (the Seattle police department, for example, showed off a 3.5-pound camera-equipped drone with a battery life of a whopping 10 minutes.)

Police drones may soon be more widespread, as the FAA released temporary rules this month making it easier for police departments to get approval for UAVs weighing up to 25 pounds, and for emergency responders to use smaller drones. The Department of Homeland Security also announced a program to help local agencies integrate the technology — principally as cheaper and safer alternatives to helicopters for reconnaissance. The Border Patrol already has a small fleet of Predators for border surveillance.

Law enforcement officials are staving off a backlash from privacy advocates. The ACLU and other civil rights groups have raised concerns about privacy and Fourth Amendment rights from unprecedented surveillance capability — not to mention the potential of police drones armed with tear gas and rubber bullets, which some departments have proposed. Congressmen Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, co-chairs of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, have asked the FAA to address privacy concerns in their new guidelines.

One of the first drone-assisted arrests by a local police department took place in North Dakota this year, with the help of a borrowed DHS Predator. It was deployed, as the New Yorker detailed, to catch a group of renegade ranchers in a conflict that originated over a bale of hay.

Scholarly drones
Universities actually have the most permits to fly drones at this point, for research on everything from pesticide distribution to disaster preparation. As Salon points out, the Pentagon and military contractors are also big funders of university drone research.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that has been outspoken about privacy concerns related to drones, put together the map below of entities authorized to fly drones by the FAA.




C N Annadurai

4 years ago

Drones can be used for developmental purposes if need be to destroy anti elements of the society.

Newsviewer Exclusive
Visa updates CBI officials about cyber crime, card fraud trends

Visa gave information to CBI officials on global trends in fraud risk management, cybercrime and measures available to detect and combat them

New Delhi: To spread awareness on changing nature of cyber crime and card frauds in India, global payment company Visa has sensitised officials from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) about modus operandi of electronic payment frauds and measures to combat them.

Visa said it has stepped up its electronic payments security awareness initiative with a Cards Fraud and Payments Risk Awareness Programme for Indian law enforcement agencies.

"This programme has been developed in response to growing government and public concerns around increased fraud exposures around electronic payment products, cyber security and cyber crime," it said in a statement.

Yesterday, Visa conducted a workshop in New Delhi where CBI officials of economic offence wing were given information on global trends in fraud risk management, cybercrime and measures available to detect and combat them.

The company said that given the rapidly changing nature of cybercrime and card fraud in India, the objective of the awareness programme was to share the modus operadi of electronic payment frauds and the intricacies involved in them.

"This programme also focused on providing information on new technologies to track and combat online and offline frauds," the company said.

Visa Group Country Manager (India and South Asia) Uttam Nayak said the company is committed to developing a safe and secure online experience. "Through such programmes we play our part in keeping the country's payment system safe and ensure that law enforcement agencies have the latest skills at their disposal," he said.

VK Gupta, Special Director of CBI said that as a law enforcement agency, it is critical to understand the evolving cybercrime landscape and the latest technology used to track and prevent criminal activities.


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