Forget about the clone wars — it seems that the drone wars are a lot more likely. I’m not necessarily even talking about drones from one country fighting drones from another. What’s even more likely, and even more imminent, are citizens getting up in arms about their country’s governments using drones to spy on them. After the Patriot Act and the slew of privacy infringements that have found new justification in post-9/11 America, I can’t say I’m all that surprised that we’re at the forefront of surveillance drone usage. But I am surprised to hear that France, a country that prizes privacy, has been advocating for military expansion, including drones and the surveillance not just of targets, but of citizens.
France was super pissed to learn that the NSA had been targeting French communications. Among the many documents Edward Snowden retrieved and exposed were some that make clear the NSA’s interception of French phone communications. The French publication Le Monde reports the numbers: from December 10, 2012 to January 8, 2013, the NSA recorded over 70 million phone calls and text messages of French folks. Maybe they were studying the accent or just wanted to know how to make really kick-ass cheese fondue? Nah. Didn’t think so. Francois Hollande, president of France, said that the news called for “extreme reprobation.”
This raises the question of whether France’s pro-surveillance drone stance is born out of genuine good intentions for the safety of the country, a retaliatory stance, or whether it’s an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” concession. Even though Europeans generally are against drones, in November France became part of the “drone club” along with Greece and Italy, which means that they’re planning on developing and producing drones for military and surveillance use starting in 2020. Since that’s still a ways off, those countries are beefing up their UAV armies with American drones. Over the summer, France ordered 12 MQ-9 Reapers (and apparently, the Netherlands will buy some too) to replace a few old Israeli-made drones. Drones made outside of the EU have to be Europeanized, or Frenchified, so they adhere to EU standards. This usually involves making changes to the cameras and communications systems, and can take a number of years.
Some French officials believe the drones should be used to surveil high-crime areas, which I’m sure will go over well with residents there. Others think drones are better used to keep an eye on migrations to and from Paris and other population centers. Others still want to monitor criminal dens. There were reports of the French using drones in Mali last year. But French privacy advocates such as the National Commission of Information and Liberties believe the use of surveillance drones is a violation of privacy and civil rights, and seem to be digging in their heels for a fight.
Regardless of what side individuals and countries are on concerning the drone debate, indications are strong that consensus will be a long time coming. Maybe it won’t happen until robots get the vote.