Telecom giants break into drone program

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Ayesha Alam

Dhu al-Hijjah 06, 1435 2014-10-01

News & Analysis

by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 8, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1435)

Drones have become so popular that even telecom giants are getting in on the act. Will these be used to pry into people’s private lives even more and for what purpose would such information be used?

The US drone program has been a hotly contested part of the news cycle since the debut of the Predator in a CIA covert attack in 2001 at the onset of the Afghan War. Numerous arguments have been presented, both for and against the use of drones in combat. Moral battlefields have been drawn, featuring US government and military circles loudly championing the robotic messengers of death, ranged against anti-war activists ringing out warnings of caution.

In the 13 years following the debut of military drones, the technology is now being globalized and exported to new contexts. Namely, drones are now being eagerly adopted by media, telecom and ICT corporations: companies that make up the very bedrock of digital media and communications. The mass exportation of drone tech, dubbed “mechanism for remote-controlled assassination” by numerous experts, into the civilian world illustrates the creeping mass-militarization of society inaugurated by the US War on Terror.

In the summer, Amazon applied to the FAA for a license to allow it to use drones in order to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. The aircraft can travel over 50 miles per hour and carry loads of up to 5 pounds. While the commercial use of drones is currently banned, drones are already being used by universities and police stations for purposes of “surveillance” against potential criminals and law breakers. Drones are even being co-opted by the entertainment industry, used by film maker Martin Scorsese and the sports channel ESPN to film footage. Amazon’s drone delivery program, dubbed “Prime Air” was debuted with trademark corporate hoopla about faster and improved service to Amazon customers. As Amazon acquires a fleet of drones to drop packages to customers under 30 minutes, the joy-stick operators in their corporate service centers will gain intrusive video access to the abodes and lives of its customers.

The invasion of privacy by telecom and web tech companies is such that the citizen is not simply at risk, losing his or her individual rights, but even his sense of self. The drone race even inspired US Supreme Court justice Sonya Sotomayer to voice protest. “There are drones flying over the air randomly that are recording everything that’s happening on what we consider our private property,” Sotomayor said while addressing an audience at Oklahoma City University. “That type of technology has to stimulate us to think about what is it that we cherish in privacy and how far we want to protect it and from whom.” She went on: “I don’t like the fact that someone I don’t know… can pick up, if they’re a private citizen, one of these drones and fly it over my property.”

As corporate newspaper Bloomberg reported, ever since the specter of commercial drones arose, US citizens have been vociferously protesting them in order to clutch together the last few shreds of individual privacy. “Even as Congress has ordered the agency to begin introducing unmanned flights into the skies by next year, some lawmakers have urged the agency to go slow because of privacy concerns,” wrote Alan Levin in his September 19, 2014 article. “At least 68 groups began lobbying Washington on unmanned aircraft policy in 2012 and 2013, according to reports reviewed by Bloomberg.”

Besides Amazon, other ICT giants are joining in the race to create a drone army. On September 19, Business Insider reported that Facebook is also looking to purchase drones on allegedly humanitarian impulse to provide internet to areas of the developing world that have not yet been connected to the world wide grid. In early 2014, Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg uploaded a white paper to internet.org where he couched this project in altruistic terms: how a more interconnected world makes life better for everyone. To achieve this end, Zukerberg announced that Facebook will be operating a fleet of solar-powered drones that will fly high up in the earth’s stratosphere, hovering over the planet to provide “an invisible platform” of world wide internet access. In practice, Zukerberg will transition from being the CEO of a social media platform to being literally, the planetary provider of internet who will have an almost superhuman reach into the personal information of billions of consumers.

Not only is the telecom industry interested in incorporating drones in its corporate profile, they are not simply commissioning the drones — they are actually buying up drone manufacturing companies and become bonafide drone developers and builders. The competition is so intense that rival companies are outbidding each other by millions of dollars in order to acquire drone manufacturers. For instance, Business Insider reports, “Google [is] also trying to pursue a drone strategy: the search giant actually outbid Facebook for a US dronemaker, Titan Aerospace, in April, leaving Facebook to buy a UK-based drone company, Ascenta, for $20 million, making it by far one of Zuckerberg’s least costly acquisitions.” Google has bought eight such drone manufacture companies.

There is no hard or fast line separating commercial and military use of drones. Especially as telecom and social media corporations have become tightly welded to US political and military interests, there is no guarantee that “access” and “faster customer service” won’t translate into increased surveillance into the lives of human beings worldwide, giving the United States unprecedented power of penetration. Google regularly gives the National Security Agency user data, violating customer privacy to open private customer communications to intrusive government oversight. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have often been used as State Department propaganda platforms, to foment mayhem and confusion inside the countries the US is at war with.

The dehumanizing effect of drone tech has not yet gained sufficient coverage; it is lost among the roar of congratulatory adulation being directed to drones as a high-tech panacea. In fact, the men who operate the drones in the service centers describe the de-sensitizing effects of working a job where the “video game” they were operating was translating into massive suffering and death on the ground. In an op-ed published on Salon on September 16, 2014, an anonymous Air Force imagery analyst attached to a Predator operation center describes the effect that operating drones had on the unit. He went into drug and alcohol addiction problems, and noted that two members of his unit had even committed suicide.

“Using drones does not, as Brennan says, ‘eliminate altogether’ the danger to American service members; rather, it damages us in an entirely different way, ripping at the fabric of our psyches, and we carry this weight home to our families, friends and into our communities,” he wrote. The Air Force analyst also described the sheer voyeurism driving the program, as well as the deadening effect of remote-killing human beings. “We were encouraged to fly missions — at great taxpayer expense — even when there was nothing of consequence to see, no targets to strike and no American ground forces to protect. Performance evaluations highlighted an airman’s number of ‘enemy kills’… Is that truly the definition of success — death? I joined the Air Force to save lives, not take them.”

It is truly a dystopian scenario to imagine that drone fleets operated by the telecom giants could be placed at the disposal of the Pentagon, CIA or NSA. It is bad enough that Zukerberg et al could manipulate the personal information and online social habits through the drone fleet silently hovering in the Earth’s atmosphere to hock them goods and services and further enrich themselves. It represents an even greater breach that the Pentagon could pressure the telecoms to weaponize these tech ghosts in order to launch air assaults upon unsuspecting civilians in the remote reaches of the Earth. The drone wars have transformed Orwellian dystopia and planetary militarization into a grim reality.

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