As reported by the BBC, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt expresses grave misgivings about civilian acquisition of drones during an interview with the Guardian (available only to that paper’s subscribers). Curiously, Schmidt voices little skepticism of government use of drones for surveillance and targeted killing. He has this to say about his fear of drone proliferation:
“You’re having a dispute with your neighbour … How would you feel if your neighbour went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their backyard. It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?” Schmidt also cited the possibility that terrorists could acquire drone technology as another danger. To make sure that drones don’t fall into the wrong hands, Schmidt said, “It’s got to be regulated … It’s one thing for governments, who have some legitimacy in what they’re doing, but have other people doing it … it’s not going to happen.”
Schmidt’s assumption that drone deployment by governments has “some legitimacy” is debatable given the available evidence. For instance, a report from McClatchy raises serious questions about whom the US Government targets with its drones. The Obama administration claims that drone strikes “are authorized only against ‘specific senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces’ involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks who are plotting ‘imminent’ violent attacks on Americans.” But according to McClatchy reporter Jonathan S. Landay,
Copies of the top-secret U.S. intelligence reports … show that drone strikes in Pakistan over a four-year period didn’t adhere to those standards.
The intelligence reports list killings of alleged Afghan insurgents whose organization wasn’t on the U.S. list of terrorist groups at the time of the 9/11 strikes; of suspected members of a Pakistani extremist group that didn’t exist at the time of 9/11; and of unidentified individuals described as “other militants” and “foreign fighters.”
These revelations led Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald to state bluntly, “The Obama Administration often has no idea who they are killing.” So why would Eric Schmidt be so unconcerned about the drones deployed by the US government?
Maybe it has something to do with Schmidt’s cozy relationship with President Obama. The administration reportedly offered Schmidt a cabinet post after the president’s 2012 re-election. According to the Telegraph, Schmidt oversaw “Google’s $700,000 donation” to the Obama campaign and has been close to the president since the 2008 presidential campaign.
Or perhaps Schmidt is just a bourgeois liberal who thinks more highly of state and corporate officials than he does of “the rabble.” Schmidt also said, “I’m not going to pass judgment on whether armies should exist, but I would prefer to not spread and democratise the ability to fight war to every single human being.” This statement displays a frustrating, but common, naivete about the nature of governments. If Schmidt was truly aware of the state’s capacity for mass killing and organized violence, he might become less wary of the local yokels. Schmidt’s error is similar to those who demand further restrictions on private firearm ownership even as US government at all levels becomes more militarized.
But what about Schmidt’s neighborhood squabble scenario?
If my neighbor had his drone buzzing over my residence, I suspect that I — probably accompanied by sympathetic and irritated neighbors — would pay Mr. Drone Fetish a visit. I would ask him to behave in a more neighborly fashion if he ever wanted to see his drone again. If he persisted, the best shot in the neighborhood might just blow his precious drone out of the sky. Emerging anti-drone technology and community pressure might also be used to harsh his UAV mellow.
Come to think of it, since domestic law enforcement is now in the drone game, drone shooting may become a hot new sport for freedom-loving US rifle owners. After all, clay pigeons pose no threat to you or your civil liberties. The same cannot be said of government drones, no matter what Eric Schmidt thinks.