Legality of Drones Are Questionable, Dangerous

Peter W. Singer, senior fellow at Brookings, warns of the ubiquitous use of drones in the military, and now domestic police units

by John Glaser, September 22, 2011

The military’s widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles to attack and surveil various war zones from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and others has been some what controversial as a weapon of war. But the ubiquitous drone is now being utilized in domestic police forces, presenting even more serious legal questions than before.

The use of drones is “a Supreme Court case waiting to happen,” wrote Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, quoting an unnamed U.S. federal district court judge. The U.S. Defense Department operates more than 7,000 aerial drones and 12,000 unmanned ground systems, Singer wrote, and now police departments in Miami, Utah, and elsewhere have sought licenses to operate surveillance drones.

Dangerously, the Obama administration and the Pentagon have already tried to draw a distinction between engaging in war and utilizing deadly drones. They have argued that the use of drones in the various countries aforementioned is actually a police action, instead of an act of military aggression.

Singer writes that the U.S. Air Force says that its unmanned spy planes, if targeted by enemy radar, have the same right to retaliate as manned airplanes. But ascribing a right to self-defense to drones could lead to legal disputes and international crises, he wrote, “as well as a huge (and probably unintentional) first step for the cause of robots’ rights.”

“Using a submarine to attack shipping, for example, was once science fiction,” Singer wrote. “When it became reality, the dispute over ‘fair use’ of such technology” drew the U.S. into World War I after its ships were sunk by German submarines.

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