by Kevin Rogers
In George Lucas’s Star Wars universe, droids are robots with tasks including translation, computing and repair work. The series’ most famous droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, take on these benign jobs.
But not all droids are created equal. The malevolent Galactic Empire uses droids designed for torture and surveillance in the original trilogy. In the prequel series, the Trade Federation deploys entire armies of droid warriors and aircraft tasked with destruction and conquest.
Droids go by a different name in this galaxy. Pilotless drones gather enemy intelligence and blow up suspected terrorists abroad. It sounds great; American enemies are destroyed without risking military lives.
But America’s shift to drone-based warfare and surveillance should arouse concern. The Justice Department released a justification to take out American citizens without charges or trial. Federal agencies look to expand permits for drones in U.S. airspace.
Vulture droids in foreign skies
Drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia have transformed America’s battle against al-Qaida. While Yemen and Somalia rack up some impressive drone strikes statistics, Pakistan draws the most attention from these glorified droid star fighters.
While the drones rained death upon terrorists, hundreds of civilians, including children, went with them. The total number of civilian deaths may be even higher given the administration’s policy of counting military-age males killed in a strike zone as enemy combatants.
Drones put distance between the pilot and the target. A human pilot can likely show some discretion when pulling the trigger. If a drone is flying autonomously toward a target, those judgments can’t be made.
The strikes have been effective in taking down top members of al-Qaida, but the cost has been a federal justification to kill American citizens abroad without charges, judges or juries. The drone-targeted killing of U.S.-born al-Qaida chief Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen occurred under this rationale. Drones nabbed his 16-year-old son a few weeks later.
The existence of justifiably legally killing American citizens without due process should prompt outrage. The American government isn’t the Empire.
Probe droids overhead
These winged droids won’t be limited to foreign skies. The Federal Aviation Administration, working to expand unmanned aircraft in domestic airspace, grants limited permits to the armed forces, law enforcement and some universities.
In other words, the probe droids deployed to Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back exist and fly over American skies.
Though these domestic drones lack the destructive capabilities of their overseas counterparts, these droids present a new challenge. These droids, in their capacity to assist law enforcement and the armed forces, pose a clear threat to privacy.
Though some states and cities have moved to restrict the capacity of law enforcement to use drones, others won’t. Regulated or not, any camera with wings ought to concern those who care about privacy. This technology grants unprecedented surveillance capacity to authorities.
A shift to droids and a loss of humanity
There’s a reason why Star Wars fans cheer on the rebels and the Jedi against droid armies and Imperial forces. It represents the battle of humanity against machines.
Using drones for police work and military operations robs that humanity. There’s no discretion, judgment or morality coming from a robot. The normal processes in surveillance and military strikes get tossed aside in the name of efficiency. The right of due process and expectations of privacy get erased.
But Americans don’t need a rebellion to challenge these policies. Voice opposition. Protest. Press lawmakers to protect legal rights and privacy.
Tell them to keep abuse of this technology in a galaxy far, far away.
Kevin Rogers is a junior journalism major at St. Bonaventure University. He writes the blog The Nerds of Congress.