Trained birds, especially pigeons, have a long history in espionage practices. A Dutch Company, called the Drone Bird Company, found a new way of using birds, well not actual birds, in order to get an overview of a situation or area: a bird drone. The drone looks like a sea gull and can be attributed with all kinds of surveillance technology. And that brings us with some legal and ethical questions, when it comes to using drones in the public domain.
The use of technology by the Chinese government brings us scary futuristic scenario’s. One of the surveillance technologies used by the Chinese government is a bird drone, a pigeon to be more precise. More than 30 governmental institutions are said to be working with this dove drone, amongst others the Chinese military. This drone is so lifelike that real pigeons fly along with this drone that flies like a bird, using its wings.
But the technology is now also developed in Europe by the Dutch Drone Bird Company (DBC). They made a drone that looks like a sea gull. In an article by Nemo Kennislink the CEO of DBC presses on the use of this ‘technology for the good’. He names examples of buyers of the Sea Gull-drone. The first example is Virunga Park in Congo, where poachers are active and harm animals. The bird drones can cross a large distance and track suspicious behaviour or poaching activities. The second example is to use the sea gull drone as part of border control, not mentioned by which country. Illegal crossings can be surveilled by the drone.
In both examples the bird drone flies over a large distance and keeps track of unwanted activities, and once detected, counter measures can be taken by enforcers.
One could say it’s more efficient and probably more effective way of surveilling a large amount of land than ground patrol, but a prominent question here is: Why then use a drone disguised as a bird?
To explore why that question is relevant, let’s have a look at ‘normal drones’ and it’s rules, regulations and ethical considerations.
The Use of Normal Drones
The use of ’normal’ drones is expected to increase starting 31st of December this year. New European rules will be effected and are intended to safeguard the use of drones, but not hinder innovative uses. Until then, national rules and regulations differ and are in use. These new European regulations are focused on ‘getting the drone into the air’. They are about safety and the limitations of the use of the public space. Compared to the current Dutch drone regulations, the new rules will be less strict. It will be easier to fly near people and buildings.
Other rules and regulations are applicable as well, such as the GDPR (and more specific laws like municipal law and police law) when it comes to the data that is collected and used by the drone.
In a White Paper published by the Dutch association of Municipalities (VNG) the topic of the use of a drone is explored. They see a drone as a fine way of reaching masses without interaction. Something that in the Covid-situation is desirable. Take for example the use of a drone with a speaker that flies over crowds of people, warns them and announces distance rules.
The Dutch government may only be making use of drones when a disturbance of the public order is at stake. And, the governmental use should be compliant with all the prerequisites for using camera’s as a surveillance technique. Ethical principles such as subsidiarity and proportionality are essential in the decision whether a drone is the right means to a goal. One of these prerequisites is the legal duty to inform the public about the presence of the drones and if so, the presence of the camera.
The VNG White Paper mentions a variety of situations where drones come in hand and would be beneficial. Such as wildfires, calamities or disasters. Situations that nowadays will be inspected by a helicopter. Drones, the VNG says, causes less disturbance to the environment than the traditional option and even be safer.
The Ethics of Normal Drones
Normal drones already confront us with ethical questions that should be taken into consideration when using it.
First of all, the use of our commons. In the VNG white paper there’s a quote of a civil servant (team for urban innovation of the city of Amsterdam). He sees the potential of drones in his city. “In a city as Amsterdam, there’s less space for cars, but in the air there’s plenty of space.” The potential use of drones, or using technology in the air in general, presses us to think about how we want to use the public space and how we want it to be occupied with (surveillance) technology. It is not a given fact or inevitability that drones will be part of law enforcement for example. We have to have a dialogue about the use of the technology and what its effect is on public space.
Second of all, the ‘chilling effect’ that comes with the use of drones. This is something that is mentioned in the VNG White Paper. When a camera is used upon the corner of the street, I can see the camera and there’s a legal duty to inform me as a citizen. A drone gives a chilling effect: who’s operating it? What does it monitor? For what? How does the drone user inform people?
Less intrusive measures can be taken for crowd control, while using drones. You can think of a thermal imaging camera, only making heat maps and not make an active registration of recognizable humans.
Ethical Reflections on Bird Drones
In the article of Nemo Kennislink, a couple of philosophers reflected on the new bird drone, including Mark Coeckelberg (University of Vienna). Coeckelberg explores a couple of scenario’s that have ethical implications. He thinks that at one point the sea gull drone could be attributed with facial recognition techniques. The CEO of BDC says that he is “glad when it can distinguish a dog from a human”, and we shouldn’t be too worried. But at the same time he admits that the possibilities really depends on the technical specs of the camera you use. He even thinks there might be a possibility that military forces may have the financial abilities to use that kind of techniques. Coeckelberg is worried that if that is the case, the sea gull drone could be flying by demonstrations and register faces of people. The right to demonstrate could erode.
And, what about the poachers in Congo? The possible impact of the fly over by sea gull drones could mean that sea gulls in general will be watched with distrust. Poacher could just – out of prevention – shoot all of the gulls out of the air. This presses on the question how real sea gulls will be affected by the use of these drones.
Privacy of the real animals could be an issue as well. The Dutch Rathenau Institute did research on the ethical questions on (amongst other topics) the use of technology and biodiversity. The Rathenau report mentions the privacy of animals as something to take into consideration. A bird drone will fly and mingle with real birds, and will also monitor them as well. What is the effect on the behaviour of the real birds? Do we have a duty to leave the birds alone? Does this affect their integrity?
Birds and other animals could also be hindered by the drone. Non-disguised drones are even all ready used to scare other birds, as a kind of flying scarecrow. The sound of the drone has impact on the environment, the animals, the people.
The chilling effect is also something that Coeckelberg mentions. Especially ‘hidden techniques’ will feed ‘our’ distrust, he says. And he also worries about what the effect will be on how ‘we’ experience our surroundings. “It would be a shame if we would become distrusting towards nature because of this nature-a-like sea gull.”
The stealthy character of the bird drone makes this piece of technology, when attributed with surveillance monitoring systems, not usable for the EU. The GDPR explicitly asks for “Transparent information, communication and modalities for the exercise of the rights of the data subject” (article 12 GDPR).
To sum it up, the use of a bird drone could affect our trust in nature, our surroundings and in the government.
The bird drone is bought by the Virunga Park in Congo and will be part of border control in a country. Is that technology for the good, as the company writes on their webpage? In both cases it raises a lot of questions. For sure, it’s stealthy surveillance.
As a recommendation to the Bird Drone Company, I would like to ask them why they would let their technology be used by countries that do not comply with our legal frameworks such as data protection. And, in what sense their technology contributes to the infringements of human rights. And why they think it is a good idea making drones that look like birds and not what it is: a machine flying in the air so everybody – including animals – can see what it is.
I’ve reached out to BDC to talk about the Sea Gull Drone, but I didn’t get a reaction on my request for an interview.
Piek Visser-Knijff is researching (in her own time, unfunded) the digital colonization of the commons.