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Open Skies, Open Society? Transparency and Accountability in the Age of the Drone

Thursday, May 12, 2016, 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, represent a paradox for civil society advocates. This innovation expands systems of accountability and surveillance simultaneously. Institutionalized human rights groups, with their focus on the state, have been quick to recognize the challenges and slow to recognize the benefits of this new state of affairs. Looser networks of investigative journalists, advocacy groups and scholar practitioners have put this technology to work for the public good. All of this has taken place in the absence of legislative frameworks, to say nothing of settled legal precedent. The result is a cacophony of uses from a plurality of actors with a variety of motives and with a broad array of outcomes. This contribution draws on a new set of data from more than 1,200 cases of non-military drone usage from 2009-2015. Patterns of use and diffusion emerge as it quickly becomes clear that while critical research and development capacity is clustered in the Global North, the technology has been adopted and diffused globally in a very short period of time. Much of this early work is experimental, little is collaborative, and civil society advocates appear quite reluctant to incorporate this innovation into their operations. We believe this will change over the next five years, as a younger generation of human rights advocates engage a broader array of tools. This contribution concludes with a discussion of broader ethical implications and a framework for responsible usage.

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick is assistant professor of political sociology at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. He specializes in social movements, human rights and new technology. He is also affiliated with the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University.