Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: NZ must act fast to control aerial spying devices

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Unpiloted drones made infamous by lethal US strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia operate here too.

The AR Drone made by Parrot, controlled by iPad. Photo / Getty Images
The AR Drone made by Parrot, controlled by iPad. Photo / Getty Images

You might not yet have one peering through your window, but drones are becoming hard to avoid. And while the volume of coverage in some quarters can suggest the word is gaining a double-meaning, the attention is warranted. The drone - or "unmanned aerial vehicle" is everywhere.

As the geeks were huddling around the latest version of the iPad-controlled Parrot AR Drone at the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, its gorier cousins were at work in north-west Pakistan.

The US has launched six strikes against al-Qaeda and the Taleban in the region within the first eight days of the year, killing at least 35 people. It is impossible to say how many civilians died.

The scale of the US drone programme is such that more pilots are now recruited to fly unmanned aircraft than conventional fighter planes. According to one senior US official, the challenge for these pilots is to marry lethal combat with mundane daily life. Shift completed, "you drive home and you have to mow the lawn".

The result, say critics, is a "PlayStation mentality".

The intensity of the covert, extrajudicial, lethal drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia - none of which is at war with the US - has varied across the last decade. Reported deaths from CIA drone strikes in Pakistan number between 2631 and 3449, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. As many as 889 were civilians, and more than 175 children.

Advocates argue that drone strikes lessen the "collateral damage". But in the political calculus, the great attraction is the elimination of any risk of US fatality.

In the week Obama picked John Brennan, the man dubbed his "Drone Godfather", as the new CIA chief, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, warned that drones are "hated on a visceral level" - they exacerbate a "perception of American arrogance". That view is supported by a recent Pew paper showing widespread international opposition to the practice.

An academic study co-authored by the Columbia Law School has, meanwhile, found that, in the summary of the Wired Danger Room blog, the drone attacks have "torn the broader social fabric in tribal Pakistan, creating paranoia that neighbours are informing on each other and traumatising those who live under the buzz of Predator and Reaper engines".

Where the US leads, others follow - many with chequebooks chasing the Americans' kit. More than 50 countries have established, or are developing, drone programmes. Recent reports describe how China and Japan are gearing up drone operations in the East China Sea. Strictly for surveillance, they say.

The lethal variety, of course, is just the tip of the swarm. The industry is in overdrive. The US Federal Aviation Administration says American skies alone could host more than 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles by 2020, be they the playthings of hobbyists, commercial operations, or the tools of state and private surveillance. Then there are the humanitarian applications, as seen in the use of drones in forecast and recovery operations in American hurricanes and, most recently, Australian bush fires.

Alongside all of that, it seems a struggle to get worked up about the revelation, which went largely unnoticed just before Christmas, that New Zealand police have purchased a drone. It's not the nation's first - there are eight licensed commercial drone operators here, while the armed services have developed their own hand-launched drone, the "Kahu". But recent experience of the surveillance adventures of New Zealand agencies - Urewera; the GCSB-Dotcom fiasco - hardly suggest we should just trust them to get on with it.

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, the technology has outpaced the law. Here, everyone from civil liberties advocates to aviation industry representatives and commercial operators have called for more rigorous regulation of the burgeoning flock. The privacy commissioner, Marie Shroff, last year called for an urgent debate on the impact of an innovation which has "the potential to be seriously intrusive"; to "think about regulating their use before they become a problem".

And however small beer our own drone issues might appear as the Americans' lethal eyes hover over Pakistan's mountains, there is an opportunity. As defence analyst Paul Buchanan has pointed out, New Zealand has "in the past shown initiative and boldness in enacting policy with both domestic and international import". Here is a chance, through a rigorous and fair-minded policy approach, to set an example.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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