Yesterday a drone attack killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban - upsetting fragile peace negotiations and confirming our fear of these robotic killers. But can drones also do good? When the motor car first appeared it was met with fear and trepidation. Speed restrictions were put in place, men with red flags required.  For heaven's sake, they scare the horses!  Drones have come to be understood as terrifying soulless terminators, and have induced a moral panic comparable with that over genetically modified food and stem cell medicine.  But drones, like any technology, are not the problem. Its the uses they are put to by people.

Since Henry Ford got going, the internal combustion engine has been responsible for many untimely deaths and generating vast quantities of war machinery and pollutants. But it has also driven (no pun intended) a mobility revolution that has transformed our lives and prosperity. I live in a corner of rural England where few people of my grandparents generation traveled further than 20 miles - a day's walk - from their homes in a lifetime and counted themselves lucky to own a bicycle.  Now my neighbours commute to Bristol - over 30 miles away - and spend their holidays on the other side of the planet.  If I counted up how many countries I've worked in it would include every continent except Antartica, and around 40% of the world's nation-states.

Earlier this year a Sky News cameraman was killed whilst getting footage of riots in Cairo - could that footage have been had more safely and perhaps more effectively by a drone?  After all helicopters are regularly used for this purpose, without any ethical concern. The BBC think so and have been experimenting with drones as TV camera platforms http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24712136.  Drones have also been used to help rapidly identify displaced people in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, and will probably become a significant component of the domestic search and rescue infrastructure in most countries in the near future.  Why?  Because drones can be on station 24/7 at the fraction of the cost of a plane or helicopter, monitoring an affected area and providing real-time information to guide the deployment of precious search and rescue teams - saving more lives.

My Dragonfly colleague Darren White has extensive expertise in operating small drones and we have been working with a manufacturer to develop a high quality system for both media camerawork and humanitarian search and rescue.  These systems are especially suited to very high risk environments, or where conventional access is limited.  We are very interested in testing out the utility of one of these systems in Syria, and would like to hear from organsiations that have similar aspirations.

Ultimately, drones are part of a wider technological revolution (which includes Skype and social media) - one that began with the telephone - which allows us to be in two places at once. To meaningfully interact with people and places in our neighborhood and in another remote (from us) location simultaneously.  Philosophers would no doubt tell us that all of these technologies are redefining the meaning of distance and "space".  We like being in two places at once, and we find it very useful.  If we didn't we wouldn't buy mobile phones or subscribe to Facebook and Twitter.
 
 
Picture
In Sudan in 1985 - long before the communications revolution - I spent a vacation riding horses out into the wilderness of Western Kordofan.  I remember a conversation around the camp fire - when myself and my friend understood that not a soul knew where we were - that we were truly alone in the world.  It was an immensely uplifting moment (we both burst into spontaneous laughter, as if we had reached the summit of Everest), an exercise in the right to privacy.

I was speaking to a lawyer in the late 1990s about the next legal challenge.  Human rights had undoubtedly been at the forefront of legal innovation in the 1990s, but she was was sure that the central issue for the next millennium would be privacy. The German-Brazilian initiative at the UN illustrates how prophetic she was.

The internet revolution has created an electronic 'tag' for all its users, one which can be used to track and surveille our movements and communications.  Of course spies have always read their opponents mail - from Livia Druscilla onwards - and the outstanding success of the British and American code breakers in the second world war in a sense created the computing revolution upon which the internet and the current NSA surveillance scandal are both founded.  Undoubtedly analysis of the data collected by electronic surveillance has prevented many terrorist outrages, but NSA's reported ability to hoover up pretty much everything that passes along the internet - even if only a tiny fraction is actually observed - is the spying equivalent of the atom bomb. It makes all other forms of intelligence-gathering largely peripheral. 

Yet the Snowden revelations obscure a wider phenomenon - that we all are spying upon one another all of the time.  Big Data - the ability to gather and process vast amounts of information on pretty much any human activity - whether it be your morning run or the "likes" of your friends and colleagues on social media - determines how we keep ourselves healthy, the advertising that is piped onto our screens, the policies that our politicians put forward at election time.

But Big Data - by its very nature - operates at the aggregate level, assessing vast amounts of data to determine very accurate trends (weather forecasting is a good example).  At the individual level (whether that is an individual person or action) it can be spectacularly inaccurate - I am often amazed at what internet advertising tries to sell me, only to understand that it is acting upon some research I undertook, or a term I used on social media which was either ironic or far removed from my actual interests.

In 2009, a giant barrage balloon was tethered over Kabul: its probably still there.  It was of a type developed to spot drug smugglers along the Mexico-US border. Throughout Afghanistan the grim concrete fortresses of Western intervention sprout antenna in place of cannon. Humanitarian and development work is grounded in the individual rights and freedoms which characterized legal thinking from the 1950 to 1990s.  Yet it operates at the mass level:  the Human Development Index measures the prevalence of those rights and freedoms in aggregate.  What the Snowden case illustrates is that the temptation to surveille people and collect Big Data to measure whether those aggregate rights are being met, while laudably motivated, may in itself constitute a violation of a basic human right - the right to privacy.