Privacy SOS

A drone with “autonomous target prioritization”

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We already know that the military gifts its old equipment to domestic law enforcement agencies under the 1033 program. And we know that federal and local law enforcement are increasingly interested in obtaining drones for surveillance or even targeting purposes — if they don't already have them. So it's only logical to assume that the latest military drones will at some point be brought back to domestic shores, to soar above us in our own friendly skies. 

The video above makes me think our skies won't be so friendly anymore when that happens.

You're looking at a General Atomics Predator C Avenger drone, a jet-powered creature that can fly for 18 hours at 60,000 feet and is what the manufacturer and the military like to call "stealthy." It can carry a 6,000 "payload," about a ton more than the Reaper drone carries. The latest model will have all kinds of fancy bells and whistles, including on board data processing, to cut down on the amount of surveillance information sent back to humans or other machines on the ground. And it will cost somewhere between $15 and $18 million a pop. (How do I know all that? The congressional drone caucus, great fans of the flying robots, told me.)

The slick Hollywood style advertisement for the Predator C Avenger embedded above gives us some other details about the beast's capabilities, including:

  • Autonomous target prioritization (yes, really; context for why that should creep you out here — keywords 'signature strikes');
  • Swarm capabilities;
  • An internal weapons bay;
  • An airborne network for automated repositioning;
  • Attrition tolerance and more.

Here's what those drones look like when swarmed:

These toys will soon be used in the Obama administration's expanding and utterly unaccountable drone war. We don't get to know very much about that war, but we know the drones are still killing people in Yemen and Pakistan, and likely elsewhere. And thanks to programs like the 1033 run by the DoD and benefiting police departments and agencies nationwide, we know that when the military tires of using these drones, they'll likely get passed down to domestic agencies instead of sent to the junk heap. 

Let's hope legislation like Ed Markey's drone privacy bill becomes law, so that when they do swarm at home police can only use them in limited and regulated circumstances. And let's hope that the ACLU's drone FOIA appeal wins, so that we can begin to understand how our government is using the tools to kill in our names overseas. As the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer says, "The public has a right to know more about the circumstances in which the government believes it can lawfully kill people, including U.S. citizens, who are far from any battlefield and have never been charged with a crime." After all, what does the government have to hide if its standards and legal reasoning are kosher and defensible? 

As the video above demonstrates, deadly technologies like the Predator C Avenger are no joke. We should take very seriously our deployment of these instruments of death — at home and abroad — and have an open debate about what's appropriate, strategic, moral and legal

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.