German Elections Raise Important Questions about Drones as Tools for Political Opposition, Protest, and Violence

In a few days, Germans will head to the polls to vote in their federal elections.  Few are predicting an easy win for long-standing German Chancellor, Angela Merkel (CDU/CSU), who is expected to face a serious but not insurmountable challenge.

Unlike the SPD, Greens, FDP, and The Left, the Pirate Party has not been a major factor in this election. The party’s inability to connect with voters and “capitalize on widespread unhappiness over state surveillance fuelled by revelations from the American whistleblower Edward Snowden” has meant that it might not even reach the electoral threshold necessary to qualify for parliamentary seats. Far-right German nationalist parties, like the Neo-Nazi leaning National Democratic Party of Germany, have fared even worse.

Yet, both Neo-Nazis and the Pirate Party have surprisingly garnered widespread international media attention in recent weeks. They have done so following separate incidents involving unmanned aerial vehicles:

The Neo-Nazi plot should certainly worry domestic terrorism experts. It is the latest in a series of failed attempts by various extremists to use model airplanes to deliver explosive devices. This includes a 2011 case in which a convicted Al-Qaeda supporter planned to “damage or destroy the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol, using large remote controlled aircraft filled with C-4 plastic explosives.”

But, the Pirate Party stunt should also be a cause for concern – albeit for a completely different set of reasons.

The ability for anyone to place an unauthorized aerial platform so close to a serving head of state should raise alarm bells. It illustrates just how hard it is to protect VIPs in an age of converging technologies. Government security teams certainly need to update their security protocols to adapt to this challenge.

The stunt also exposes a very real threat to public safety. Just a few weeks ago, an American teenager was killed after being struck by a model helicopter in Brooklyn park. This follows similar deaths in Switzerland and Texas.

While these deadly incidents involved much larger and more powerful model helicopters than the one used at the CDU/CSU event, where do we exactly draw the line? Do we really want to go down the slippery slope of legislating exactly which types of unmanned aerial vehicles can be operated by the general public at campaign rallies? This could prove a difficult if not impossible task.

For these reasons, one should be careful not to condone the Pirate Party’s actions based solely on political views. This case is much bigger than whether the German military should possess armed and/or surveillance drones or whether the CDU/CSU should lead the next government. It’s fundamentally a question of what formal and informal norms should govern the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by non-state actors in political opposition, protest, and/or violence.

Unfortunately, there remains very little debate on this question. Global drone discourse instead tends to center on what formal and informal norms should govern state actors’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles for attack, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. While this serves as an important debate in its own right, it is not the proper lens through which to evaluate the recent stunt in Germany.

Michael Edward Walsh is the Adjunct Fellow for Emerging Technologies at the Federation of American Scientists. He is also the President of the Emerging Science and Technology Policy Centre.

 

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