Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Ethics of Drones at the University of California

I've been appointed to an advisory board to evaluate the University of California's systemwide policy regarding Unmanned Aircraft Systems or "drones". We had our first meeting Tuesday. Most of the other members of the committee appear to be faculty who use drones in their research, plus maybe a risk analyst or two. (I missed the first part of the meeting with the introductions.)

Drones will be coming to college campuses. They might come in a big way, as Amazon, Google, and other companies continue to explore commercial possibilities (such as food and medicine delivery) and as drones' great potential for security and inspection becomes increasing clear. Technological change can be sudden, when an organization with resources decides the time is right for a big investment. Consider how fast shareable scooters arrived on campus and in downtown areas.

We want to get ahead of this. Since University of California is such a large and prominent group of universities, our policies might become a model for other universities. The advisory board is only about a dozen people, and they seem interested to hear the perspective a philosopher interested in the ethics of technology. So I have a substantial chance to shape policy. Help me think. What should we be anticipating? What ethical issues are particularly important to anticipate before Amazon, or whoever, arrives on the scene and suddenly shapes a new status quo?

One issue on my mind is the combination of face recognition software and drones. It's generally considered okay to take pictures of crowds in public places. But drones could create a huge stream of pictures or video, sometimes from unexpected angles or locations, possibly with zoom lenses, and possibly with facial recognition, which creates privacy issues orders of magnitude more serious than photographers on platforms taking still photos of crowds on a busy street.

Another issue on my mind is the possibility of monopoly or cartel power among the first company or first few companies to set up a drone network -- which in the (moderately unlikely but not impossible) event that drone technology starts to become integral to campus life, could become another source of abusive corporate power. (Compare the abuses of for-profit academic journals.)

I'm not as much concerned about conventional safety issues (drones crashing into crowded areas), since such safety issues are already a central focus of the committee. I'd like to use my role on this committee as an opportunity to highlight potential concerns that might be visible to those of us who think about the ethics of technology but not as obviously visible to drone enthusiasts and legally trained risk analysts.

An agricultural research drone at UC Merced

Incidentally, what great fun to be a tenured philosophy professor! I get to help shape drone policy. Last weekend, I enjoyed entertaining UCSD philosophers with lots of amazingly weird facts about garden snails (love darts!, distributed brains!), while snails crawled around on the speaker's podium. This coming weekend, I'll be running a session at the conference of the Science Fiction Writers Association on "Science Fiction as Philosophy". I'm designing a contest to see if any philosopher can write an abstract philosophical argument that actually convinces readers to give money to charity at higher rates than control. (So far, the signs aren't promising.) Why be boring?

Philosophers, do stuff!



dstrohmaier said...

Besides facial recognition, I would not rule out that the drones of the future carry microphones, think of a flying Alexa, which raises further privacy concerns.

I would like to see thoughts about how to ensure that students and enthusiasts will be able to fly their own drones when the air space becomes more crowded.

Also, advertising is all-present in tech, but maybe we do not want drones flying around showering people with flyers, or worse, playing audible ads. (Perhaps exceptions can be made for students?)

How about noise close to libraries or other places where people go to study?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

dstrohmaier: Thanks -- those are all good issues!

Nichi said...

Also along the lines of worries about privacy, drones are (for now) much more visible than the currently common forms of image/audio capture around campuses. People may or may not be aware of any cameras discreetly in the ceiling or wall of wherever they are. Drones are often much less subtle, and given their reputation, people may well feel watched when they're around. (They may also feel their being watched isn't in their interests, leading to distress and all of the bad effects thereof. I find articles like this: and there seem to be some good potential outcomes, but the articles I've seen have focused on the good. Sartre's analysis of the look, remarkably in how recognition of being seen by another subject causes self-objectification, makes me worry. The potential psychological impact on people with existing anxiety (or any other condition that drones may worsen by being present) seems like it might be troublesome. (To be clear, I do hope we can have drones without harming mental health.)

Along similar lines, if they are rolled out in such a way that they're identified with law enforcement or similar authorities. Again, these are worries I hope turn out to be deniable, but I would imagine, say, students without legal documentation would be especially distressed by facial recognition software in the sky. Transgender students who might otherwise be "out" on campus might hesitate if a campus candid camera in the sky could land them in promotional materials unexpectedly.

Luca Ferrero said...

Here is an initial list of potential issues:

Privacy: facial recognition, recordings (visual, auditory, thermal, etc.)

Surveillance and Monitoring: it seems unobjectable that they could be used to check on something like parking - but would it be ok to use them to proctor exams (say)? Or for more generalized surveillance and monitoring (about workplace performance, say).

Would there be locations where they would not be allowed to fly or ‘peer’ into? Small drones could be roaming inside buildings, including classrooms, labs, and offices.

Tracking and locating: would we allow drones to track and locate any of us — even if only temporarily? Drones could be used for deliveries and it would be convenient for them to deliver directly where one is located (say food deliveries on campus) - but this would require them to have access to our location and track our movements. I assume that at least this would require consent and only temporary access to the relevant information.

Interference with physical movement: A drone could be used purposefully to interfere with physical movement - what kind of interference could be allowed? I imagine some emergency situation in which drones could be used to cordon off quickly an area or block some access. But what about using them regularly to control pedestrian traffic on campus, say? Or to interfere with the movement of some specific individuals?

Personal Drones: many of these policies will initially affect commercial and ‘institutional’ drones, but what about personal drones? What if personal drones become as ubiquitous as smartphones?

What about drones of those who are neither affiliated with or doing business with the university? can the university restrict access to its airspace?

Drones as stand-in for individuals: we already communicate by remote video, why not use instead a suitable equipped drone? Could I send a drone to attend meetings or lecture, rather than showing up in person?

What about betting on drone fights? ;-)

I suspect that there are already policies that cover several of these cases - and they need only to be updated to extend to the use of drones. However, there will be cases where the convenience of drones might put the policies under some stress - in addition, of course, to truly novel problems generated by them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, what a great set of issues -- thanks so much for these comments, Nichi and Luca! There's even more to this than I imagined, as I imagined there would be.

chinaphil said...

There's a meme going round on Chinese social media at the moment with a nice cityscape including a ferris wheel, but it's taken in such high resolution (allegedly with a Huawei phone, which does have very high resolution indeed) that when you zoom in, the silhouette of a couple getting up to the naughty can clearly be spotted in one of the ferris wheel cars. In terms of hardware, I don't think there is any way to stop drones (and other devices) seeing more and more of our lives, so to the extent that privacy is to be preserved, it must be done with software and organizational measures: face blurring, data anonymization, strong access controls.
Drones are relatively expensive bits of kit, and will be flying around in human spaces, often without close supervision... I wonder if the most important issue to set rules around might not be good old-fashioned theft?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, this is coming, in all kinds of ways. Related to drone theft: information theft of (supposedly) secure info beamed between drone and user.