Home / Opinion / Giving drones to our cops is a very bad idea

The Delhi Police has been having a tough time, what with so many protests happening in the capital every other day. It now wants eyes in the sky to watch over troublemakers, according to a newspaper report. The cops believe the drones will enable them to “keep an eye, real time, on protesters and general public during events involving crowds, and the footage used for post-incident analysis… If all goes well, a global tender for the drones will be floated and the deal finalized in a few months’ time."

The report helpfully adds, “In 2013, police handled 1,467 demonstrations, 683 rallies, 1,183 dharnas and around 6,500 other arrangements which required electronic surveillance." Of course, this requirement for electronic surveillance is not under question. What matters is that drones make an existing task—monitoring and controlling crowds, data-gathering, and post-event analysis—easier. So what could be the harm in using them for this purpose? In themselves, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are neither good nor bad, and they can be pretty handy provided their use is regulated, goes the typical argument from drone evangelists.

While a range of serious concerns have been raised at the application or deployment level—to do with privacy, data retention, abuse, outdoor ethics, etc.,—there are other, broader aspects to do with the rise of drone technology that have received less critical attention. And one major reason for this is the general climate of technophilia that defines our age.

Indeed, one of the common myths of our times is that technology is neutral—it is how we use it that makes all the difference. A common example cited to illustrate this is the power of the atom, which can be harnessed for peace, as well as to destroy. If this argument is valid, then it ought to be applicable to all kinds of technology, including military technology.

But there can be no neutral view of military technology. Its purpose is clear: to aid the killing machines that we know by the names of army, navy and air force. There is no ambiguity about its value, which it derives from its power to administer death or subdue the enemy, and not from its power to nurture life.

In other words, there is always a social context in which a technology is developed, and no matter what subsequent applications it may find, it is this socio-historical origin that needs to be examined when we speak of the so-called neutrality or otherwise of a technological advance.

It is not a coincidence that a lot of the technological advances that have shaped our living environment today—from television and the Internet to smart phone and microwave—have their origins in military research and development (R&D), and many civilian applications, such as, say, voice recognition technology, found their uses in the military domain first.

American president Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell speech in 1961 had warned the world about the “military-industrial complex," lending enormous currency to this three-word critique of Western capitalist civilization. But Eisenhower’s warning seems dated today, with the economic base of power shifting from industrial capital to financial capital. This has also sparked a parallel shift in the centre of gravity of the world’s dominant economies, from manufacturing to services. It is no accident that today the world’s largest company by revenue is a services company (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.), and the world’s largest company by market capitalization is a technology company (Apple Inc.).

Both these tectonic changes in the configuration of the world economy have been—and continue to be—mediated by advances in technology. If we update Eisenhower’s paradigm to reflect this development—it is no longer about the military-industrial complex so much as it is about the finance-technology complex. But, of course, the military still plays a huge role—partly as a capital sink, partly as a driver of technological innovation, and partly as capital’s enforcer, which has been its traditional role.

If there is one thing that should be obvious from all this, it is that technology is not neutral. In the age of capital, it emerges—and more importantly, it spreads—in response to the needs of capital. Its values, therefore, are the values of capital—for instance, speed is one, productivity is another of its core values. So, to speak of technology’s neutrality is an ideological exercise, for it can only ever be as neutral as capital can be.

If there is one technological phenomenon that encapsulates these shifts, and embodies the true ideological flavour of a militaristic innovation in the service of the finance-technological complex, it is drone technology.

Drones, as I have summarized here, first emerged as a military application, initially to do with reconnaissance. Now, of course, they are used for outright killing. But right now, it is still a rather complicated, and politically messy, business to keep enough wars going in order to sustain the drone industry. In order to secure their future—both in terms of fetching a return on the financial capital invested in drone technology and manufacture, as well as on the intellectual and knowledge capital embedded in drone R&D—it is vital to find wide civilian applications for drones.

There are two ways in which that could happen. One way is to find pure civilian uses for militaristic capabilities. This is already happening with drones having been introduced in an array of fields—from environmental and wildlife observation to land surveying and mapping, livestock tracking, and journalism, among others. In fact, last year I happened to attend a literary festival where the proceedings were recorded by a camera-toting drone hovering above the heads of the audience.

The second way is by turning the civilian sphere into a military or quasi-military one. What is disturbing about the move by Delhi Police to acquire drones to watch over crowds of protesters is that it entails a decisive shift in the approach toward law enforcement. Delhi police would by no means be the first police force in the world to adopt drones—police departments in the US and in Mexico are already using them.

But what begins with crowd control—the reason the Delhi cops want drones—inevitably ends up as a full spectrum technology of repression spanning the entire gamut, from spying to tracking to killing, which could occur either in a targeted manner or as collateral damage. One need not attribute hidden motives to the Delhi police here. It is the internal logic of the military-origin drone technology which mandates that citizens—the category the cops ought to be dealing with—get reconceptualised as targets.

This technology, by its very nature, is alien to policing conceived as a community service. Instead, it refashions policing or law enforcement along the lines of the far more brutal, American invention that has come to be known as homeland security—where one prank call from a teenager is all that’s needed for your home to stormed by a hyper-aggressive SWAT team and armed helicopters.

Delhi police, and India as a country, must steer clear of using drones in law enforcement. If the Indian state feels stretched by all the protests against it, it ought to invest in addressing the needs of its protesting citizens rather than on technologies to monitor and repress them.

But one senses that it might already too late for this argument. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before drones become as much a part of the urban landscape as police check posts, metal detector frames, and CCTV cameras. And we will be told, and we shall all believe, that they are for our own security.

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