Massive Drone Attack in Pakistan, and Hacking of Drones by Iraq – Are we too comfortable with the use of drones?

NBC Coverage on Largest Drone Attack

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Insurgents Hack U.S. Drones – Wall Street Journal

On December 17th (Tuesday last week), our sister blog Moral Machines (a really informative and active blog run by the authors of the book Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong) made two posts about US drones.

One was the news about the largest drone attack by the US military (the first embed above), which happened that day – and I quote Moral Machines:

NBC is reporting that more than 7 drones were used to kill up to 17 people (numbers vary) in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan during two different drone attacks. One of these attacks reported involved at least five drones and ten missiles. [link to original]

The other post(the second embed above) was about the reports from the Wall Street Journal regarding the hacking of the US drones in Iraq.

Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations” [link to original]

Although they report that only the video feeds were intercepted and the control of drones was not compromised, one could easily imagine hacking the controls of the drones – now that  we know drone hacking is already taking place.

Apparently, the interception of videos first took place as early as December of last year. So we know that the US was probably working on fixing this problem for at least a year.

In the past, conservative roboethicists have emphasized the ethical problems and dangers of using UAVs (incl. Veruggio), and people I would consider to be realists have said (with statistics and literatures) that the use of more drones and robotic/autonomous weapons is inevitable. And from casual discussions I’ve had in the past, I know that some people are concerned about the consequences of making the technology available to terrorists.

The funny thing is, we don’t hear a lot about the voices of those who are being attacked by these drones. How do civilians feel about the drones when they see them flying above their heads? There has been some positive reports:

“Interestingly, residents of the tribal areas where the attacks actually occur, who bitterly resent the militants’ brutal rule, are far less critical of the drones, said Farhat Taj, an anthropologist with the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy.” [post]

But how much of it reflect reality? We could reasonably hypothesize that attitude towards drones by people in the US, the US army, and Pakistani civilians would be different. But how do they differ? I will have to catch up on my readings on the military roboethics books published this year to see if they have any findings on this issue.

It would also be interesting to see if more incidences of drone hacking reduces Obama’s support of the technology. I personally doubt it will change their attitude towards the technology unless the control of drone itself becomes compromised at some point.

If the US continued on with the development of this technology and the opposing powers continued to produce better hackers, then we could potentially see the beginning of a new kind of war – where winning or losing a battle depends heavily upon who’s brain can develop/hack newest technologies faster/better.

I know that UAVs can potentially save more lives and provide many advantages, but I believe technology is ambivalent (read Jacque Ellul’s work on Technoethics). It is both good and bad. And it doesn’t distinguish its users, which means that the same advantages and disadvantages of the technology applies to whomever (whether it be the US, Pakistan, Iraq, South or North Korea) possesses the technology. I think the only thing that’s making us feel a little more at ease about the technology than we -I believe – should be is the fact that the US is the one doing most of development work, and no other country seems to have the money/power to produce them.

But remember, hacking – and hence, stealing UAVs – is relatively cheaper and easier than developing UAV’s from scratch.


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