Tag Archives: Surveillance

Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? (Updated)

My colleague Mark Hanis recently co-authored this Op-Ed in the New York Times advocating for the use of drones in human rights monitoring, particularly in Syria. The Op-Ed has provoked quite the debate on a number of list-serves like CrisisMappers, and several blog posts have been published on the question. I’ve long been interested this topic, which is why I included a section on drones in this official UN Foundation Report on “New Technologies in Emergen-cies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks.” I also blogged about the World Food Program’s (WFP) use of drones some four years ago.

Some critics have made some good points vis-a-vis the limitation of drones for human rights surveillance. But some have also twisted the Op-Ed’s language and arguments. The types of drones or UAVs that an NGO might be able to purchase would not have the advanced technology required to capture the identify of perpetrators, according this critic. But at no point do Mark and his co-author, Andrew Sniderman, actually argue that drones should be used to document the identity of those committing human rights violations. Rather, “A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood.” And what if a consortium of NGOs do receive substantial funding to acquire a high-end drone for human rights surveillance purposes? Moreover, as drones become cheaper and smaller, using them to capture the identity of perpetrators will become increasingly possible.

This same critic notes quite rightly that humanitarian drones would “not have been able to monitor any mistreatment of Mandela in his cell on Robben Island. Nor will they be able to monitor torture in Syrian detention facilities.” Indeed, but again, nowhere in the Op-Ed do the authors claim that drones could serve this purpose. So this is again a counter-argument to an argument that was never made in the first place. (This critic seems to enjoy this kind of debating tactic).

As the authors fully acknowledge, the use of humanitarian drones would “violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws.” Some are concerned that this would “cause the Syrian government to even further escalate its military response.” If this is really the argument made against the use of drones, then this would beg the following question: should existing interventions in Syria also be vetoed since they too risk provoking the regime? This argument almost seeks to make a case for non-interference and non-intervention. The argument also supposes that the Syrian regime actually needs an excuse to escalate the slaughter of civilians.

This is a clear case where the regime has clearly and repeatedly violated the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle and has thus given up any legitimate claim to territorial sovereignty. “In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders” (NYT Op-Ed). And yet, one critic still argues that using drones in Syria would “set an unfortunate precedent [...] that human rights organizations are willing to violate international law [...].” According to R2P, Syria’s claim to sovereignty expired almost a year ago.

Granted, R2P is an international norm, not (yet) international law, but as the authors of the Op-Ed acknowledge, this type of intervention “isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?” Besides, to assume that human rights organizations have never violated laws in the past would be naive at best. Human rights organizations often smuggle information and/or people across borders, I know this for a fact.

As for the argument that using drones “could make even traditional human rights monitoring in repressive countries more difficult,” this is certainly true, as is any other type of intervention and use of technology, like digital cameras, Twitter, blogging, satellite imagery, etc. This same critic quotes another who points to surface-to-air misslies as being a regime’s obvious antidote to human rights drones. Indeed, such cases have been reported in Sri Lanka, as I learned back in 2005 from a colleague based in Colombo. Providing a regime with non-human targets is preferable to them using live ammunition on children. Regimes can also destroy mobile phones, digital cameras, etc. So does that mean human rights activists should refrain from using these technologies as well?

More from the critic: “cell phones can go more places than drones. Most people own one, and two year olds can use iPads. Cell phones can take photos that identify who is wearing what uniform and beating which protesters.” Indeed, the Op-Ed does not make any claims to the contrary. Cell phones may be able to go to more places than drones, but can they do so “unmanned“?  Can cell phones take pictures of uniforms up close and personal with zero risk to the cell phone owner? The observers of the recent Arab League Mission were not free to move around as they pleased, which is one reason why the Op-Ed makes the case for humanitarian drones. Still, the critic points out that she could attach a cell phone to a weather balloon and thus create a mini-drone. For sure, DIY drones are becoming more and more popular given the new technologies available and the lower costs; as is balloon mapping. Nothing in the Op-Ed suggests that the authors would rule out these solutions.

So what impact might the use of drones for human rights have? This is another entirely separate but equally important question. What kinds of documented human rights violations (and on from what types of media) might have the greatest chance prompting individuals and policy makers to act? As this critic asks, “What is the point of diminishing marginal returns on ‘bearing witness’”? And as the previous critic argues, “plenty of graphic images and videos from Syria have been captured and made public. Most are taken by digital cameras and cell phones in close quarters or indoors. None have caused the outrage and response Hanis and Sniderman seek.”

I beg to differ on this last point. Many of us have been outraged by the images captured and shared by activists on Twitter, Facebook , etc; so have human rights organizations and policy makers, including members of the UN Security Council and the Arab League. How to translate this outrage into actual response, how-ever, is an entirely different and separate challenge; one that is no less important. Mark and Andrew do not argue or pretend that surveillance imagery captured by  drones would be a silver bullet to resolving the political inertia on Syria. Indeed: “as with any intelligence-gathering process, surveillance missions necessarily operate in a political, rather than neutral space.”

In my mind, a combination of efforts is required—call it a networked, ecosystem approach. Naturally, whether such a combination (with drones in the mix) makes sense will depend on the context and the situation. Using drones will not always make sense, the cost-benefit analysis may differ considerably depending on the use-case and also over time. From the perspective of civil resistance and non-violent action, the use of drones makes sense. It gives the regime another issue to deal with and requires them to allocate time and resources accordingly. In fact, even if human rights activists had access to the cheapest drones that do not have the ability to take pictures, flying these over Syrian airspace would likely get the attention of the regime.

The result? This would “force” the regime to deal with something new and hopefully draw their fire away from civilians, even if momentarily. At the very least, it would use up some of their military ammunitions. More importantly, there’s also a plausible psychological effect here: no one likes mosquitos buzzing around their heads. It’s annoying and frustrating. Harassing repressive regimes can certainly have negative consequences. But they are part and parcel of civil resistance tactics. In certain circumstances, these risks may be worth taking, especially if those who decide to use drones for these purposes are Syrian activists themselves or operating under the direction of these activists. Either way, the duty to bear witness remains and is recognized internationally.

From a financial cost-benefit perspective, there’s no doubt that “the comparative advantage on technological platforms lies with foreign governments, rather than the NGO community,” as this critic points out. But foreign governments do not readily make their imagery public for the purposes of advocacy. This would likely place unwanted pressure on them to react if they publicly shared the extent of the evidence they had on the atrocities being committed in Syria and elsewhere.

Update 1: An iRevolution reader commenting on another blog post just shared this news that the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, used his Facebook page to post “declassified US imagery of Syrian military attacks against civilians in the besieged city of Homs.” The US State Department explained that “Our intent here is to obviously expose the ruthlessness of the brutality of this regime and its overwhelming predominant advantage and the horrible kind of weaponry that it is deploying against its people.”

The news article adds that “Moscow and Beijing are also part of the intended audience for these images following their veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution backing Arab League action against President Assad.” In the context of my blog post above, one could argue that the USG could have made this type of information public 6 months ago in order to expose the brutality of the regime? And that a humanitarian drone might have exposed this earlier? In any case, this is a very interesting development. And as one colleague noted, “this proves point that images of atrocities are leveraged to build political pressure.”

Update 2: I wrote this follow-up post on the use of drones for civil resistance.

Spying with Maps

Mark Monmonier has written yet another excellent book on maps. I relished and reviewed his earlier book on “How To Lie with Maps” and enjoyed this one even more on “Spying with Maps.” I include below some short excerpts that I found particularly neat and interesting.

Picture 1

“Mapping, it turns out, can reveal quite a bit about what we do and who we are. I say mapping, rather than maps, because cartography is not limited to static maps printed on paper or displayed on computer screens. In the new cartographies of surveillance, the maps one looks at are less important than the spatial data systems that store and integrate facts about where we live and work. Location is a powerful key for relating disparate databanks and unearthing information [...].”

Big Brother is doing most of the watching, at least for now, but corporations, local governments, and other Little Brothers are quickly getting involved.”

“Much depends, of course, on who’s in charge, us or them, and on who ‘them’ is. A police state could exploit geographic technology to round up dissidents—imagine the Nazi SS with a GeoSurveillance Corps. By contrast, a capitalist marketer can exploit locational data by making a cleverly tailored pitch at a time and place when you’re most receptive. Control is control whether it’s blatant or subtle.”

Corrona Satellites

“Spy satellites became a top priority during the Cold War, and Congress generously supported remote sensing. [...] analysts with security clearances pored over images from the CIA’s top-secret Corona satellites at the agency’s clandestine National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).” By 1967, “a massive research and development effort had refined the [resolution] down to an impressive 1.5 meters (5 ft.).” Today’s “intelligence satellites have even sharper eyes: various estimates suggest that pictures from Corona’s most advanced successors have a resolution of roughly 3 inches.”

“Because image intelligence focuses on detecting change, 1-meter satellite imagery is often more informative [then people realize]. A new railway spur or clearing, for instance, could signify a new missile site or weapons factory. And a suspicious accumulation of vehicles might presage an imminent attack. As John Pike observes, ‘if a picture is worth 1,000 words, two pictures are worth 10,000 words.’”

“Washington strongly discourages the sale of high-resolution satellite imagery of Israel, and during the 2001 Middle Eastern campaign, the government thwarted enemy media hopes by buying exclusive rights to Ikonos imagery of Afghanistan.”

I really appreciated Mark’s take on the panopticon. His points below are largely ignored by the mainstream literature on the subject and go a long way to explaining just why satellite imagery has not (yet?) acted a strong deterrent against genocide and crimes against humanity. For more on this, please see this post on geospatial technologies for genocide prevention.



“Although the [panopticon] metaphor seems largely appropriate, I am not convinced  that the similarity between Bentham’s model prison and video surveillance tells us anything that’s not obvious about the watcher’s power over the watched. My hunch is that the prison’s walls and bars as well as the isolation of inmates in individual cells exert far greater control over prisoners’ lives than a ready ability to spy on their actions. [...] What’s relevant [...] is the power of surveillance to intimidate someone already under the watcher’s control, like a prisoner (who can be beaten), an employee (who can be fired), or a motorist who runs red lights (and could be fined or lose his or her license.”

I had come across ShotSpotter a while back but rediscovered the tool in Mark’s book. What is neat is that ShotSpotter combines audio and mapping in a way that may also be applicable to crisis mapping.



“[...] police in several California cities rely on ShotSpotter, which its investors describe as an ‘automatic real-time gunshot locator and display system’ [...] a clever marriage of seismic analysis and acoustic filtering. [...] Like an earthquake, a gunshot generates a sharply defined circular pulse, which expands outward at constant speed. [...] ShotSpotter’s microphones detect the wave at slightly different times depending on their distance from the shooter’s location [which the computer can use] to triangulate a location in either two or three dimension. [...] The process pinpoints gunshots within 15 yards [...].”

Patrick Philippe Meier