John Yoo: The Real Thing to Worry About With Drones is Their Use by Private Citizens


If you start reading too many libertarian or just generally government-skeptical writings, sometimes you begin to forget that the world is full of people who are more nervous about private citizens doing something than they are government doing it. Former Bush Attorney and pro-torture advocate John Yoo is, unsurprisingly, one of those private-citizens-make-me-nervous kind of guys.

Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf notes that Yoo correctly identifies that a brave new world of every tabloid from Gawker to TMZ having a drone, and one where parents can creep on their children all day long (or, more than they do already) will be bizarre and maybe bad. But Yoo also wrote this:

So more important than worrying about whether the NYPD or DHS uses drones, are what rules our society will choose to govern and constrain the private use of drones. It may ultimately be difficult to control; as drone technology allows for smaller and cheaper drones, the government will have less and less ability to regulate them.  

No. That is not what is more important.

Writes Friedersdorf:

Yoo has got it exactly wrong: the rules governing NYPD and DHS drone use are of vital importance, regardless of what's happening in the world of private drones, because coordinated government spying is more problematic than spying by parents or celebrity gawkers.

Yoo ought to understand why that is so. He's the sort of complacent lawyer that power-hungry leaders rely upon when they want to torture or spy without warrants or extrajudicially kill in secret. The monopoly on force that the state enjoys, the tremendous power wielded by its functionaries, the incentives to target political enemies, and the frequency with which abuses occur are all reasons why restraining official use of this technology ought to be an urgent priority. There's also the reality that, whatever the future brings, government use of drones is now much more common.  

And, the Huffington Post noted recently that the age of drone lobbyist is upon us as well. This will of course involve a depressing collusion of government and private sector industries. No doubt government will benefit and the private sector will be too cozy with government, what with the estimated 23,000 jobs that drone tech will add by 2025.

So yes, the day is definitely coming where TMZ will get their scoops from some 14-pound creeping drone. Weird privacy problems will come up. So will the potential for dangerous crashes (not that government-drones are immune to such things.)

But in this land of the militarized drug war, where the Fourth Amendment cannot keep up with the existence of smartphones, or airplanes, it's hilarious to think that the occasional creepy neighbor or pushy tabloid with a drone will be the real problem. Especially when a few police departments are already hoping to arm their drones with tear gas and rubber bullets.

It doesn't need to be said, except that the existence of people like Yoo demands that it be said, but Yoo is completely wrong. The longer that drones are only in the hands of cops and the government, the more regulations that we have on private usage, and the longer we will have to wait for the TacoCopter to move from theoretical start-up to sweet reality.

Really, Yoo, sometimes it's as simple as, which institution may legally kill people? The answer is government. But considering how much the man trusts presidents, nothing about this is a surprise. 

Let's let one of the co-founders of TacoCopter sum it up:

"Current U.S. FAA regulations prevent … using UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, like drones] for commercial purposes at the moment," Simpson said over Gchat. "Honestly I think it's not totally unreasonable to regulate something as potentially dangerous as having flying robots slinging tacos over people's heads … [O]n the other hand, it's a little bit ironic that that's the case in a country where you can be killed by drone with no judicial review."

Reason on drones.

NEXT: Reason Writers on The Alyona Show: Lucy Steigerwald on the 15-Year-Old Intel Science Fair Winner, Schools Tracking Students with RFID Chips, and The Japanese Artist Who Cooked His Genitals

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Indeed, private drone use is easy to solve - just legalize surface to air missiles. Very small ones, of course

    1. You could probably take care of the majority of private drones with a 12 gauge shotgun. Hell, police drones too. "Drones" includes normal R/C airplanes and helicopters if they have a camera attached.

      1. That will be charged as assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon.

    2. The Second already covers that. If the government was actually interested in following the Constitution, you could own all the Avengers and Stingers that you finances would allow.

      1. Just like the first amendment protects death threats and perjury.

  2. I'm far less worried about a robotic aircraft delivering my groceries than I am about one delivering a bomb down my chimney. Fuck John Yoo.


    1. Future building codes will require all house to have chinmeys precisely for this reason.

      But not working fireplaces - that's bad for the environment.

  3. I foresee the broad-spectrum drone jammer being the best invention of the next decade.

    1. But anti-drone suicide drones would be soooo much more fun...

  4. A private violation of privacy is only damaging if it's backed by interest from another party. The damage to me is limited to what others think of me. When there's coercion backing that violation of privacy, as is the case with the government, the limit is whatever my actions aggregate to, which could be years of harassment and prison. My reputation is a collection of more than just one event and can be redeemed. The state doesn't see me that way, and the nature of crimes, infractions, and regulatory violations is arbitrary yet severe. If you're at a place in your life where the consequences of the paparazzi are greater than that of the police, then you aren't the worry.

    I would much sooner explain my pot use to the church choir than a judge, and that explanation would mean a lot more to the former than the latter.

    1. So looking in someone's window, or installing a pinhole camera in a public bathroom, isn't damaging?

      I mean, in a literal sense it isn't but I don't think there are many here who think such should be legal. Something to ponder.

  5. *TacoCopter

  6. John Yoo should be in prison.

  7. These idiots probably don't realize that a rubber bullet falling from a height and hitting you in the head will be more likely to kill you. Or maybe they don't care.

  8. Yep, the Old Dodge has migrated from liberal land to the neoconservatives. Don't worry about the government spying on you with drones - your nosy neighbour might buy one! Worse, a corporation might earn money with one! Oh, the horror!

    Of course, the neocons are callow as of yet. They don't know how to use the Old Dodge to distract attention from million of people deliberately killed in a Gulag by making heated accusations over an accident, or by assuming that the free marketplace should be blamed for not shouldering the responsibilities of God.

    But give 'em time...

    Of course, I can easily be pegged as an angry white guy who's too selfish to share his personal life with Homeland Security 😉

  9. We have had spy cameras available for years for use by private citizens and they seem mainly to have been used by parents to identify abusive or neglectful child care workers. In the few cases where they were abused, eg clothing store dressing rooms, courts adjudicated.

    1. I think they're worried because the increasing prevalence of cameras has caught police and other agents acting outside the bondaries of their authority on numerous occasions.

      Imagine what it will be like when a UAV can follow and film a cop from the beginning of his shift until the end.

      1. I agree. The statists like to say "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear". The agents of the State are the people who have the most to hide so they are frantically fearful.

  10. There probably be a term limit on government service. People who exist solely in the world of public sector decision making for a long time tend to lose touch with reality.

    1. There [should] probably absolutely be a term limit on government service. People who exist solely in the world of public sector decision making for a long time tend to lose touch with reality are sadistic fuckers who seek only power over others.


  11. Yoo might be much happier in the UK.

  12. I dunno man, I think everyone sould have one!

    1. Wow, the "hybrid" has more common sense than Yoo!

  13. John Yoo: The Real Thing to Worry About With Drones is Their Use by Private Citizens

    I am sure that Stalin would agree.

  14. In a sane and just world, John Yoo would be stripped naked and brought out into the National Mall. He would be tied to a post and over the next few days be subjected to lingchi, the Death By a Thousand Cuts.

    First, his eyes would be removed. As his blood poured down his cheeks like tears, his fingertips and toes would be removed. Then the cutters would move on to his nose, his tongue and his genitals. After which, flesh would be removed from his thighs and upper arms. His moans and screams would be accompanied by drumming and the shrill sound of fifes. This would continue until he died, in pain, alone and in abject terror.

  15. People like that go wrong by grossly overvaluing or overestimating the power of democratic controls. They think, the people collectively won't do bad things to themselves, because there's wisdom in numbers, but ya gotta watch out for the lone nut who's accountable to nobody.

  16. TacoCopter

    Or other, (NSFW) variations on that idea.

  17. Why is this any different from the threat of journalists using helicopters or papparazzi to monitor tabloid-worthy events? Famous people have been holding secret weddings for years to handle this problem.

  18. I think he's correct about one point, that private drones would amass in much greater numbers than govt drones, simply because there are so many more private individuals and organizations than there are govts. I mean, you have to admit that traffic would be a lot less congested if only the govt had cars. And of course he's assuming the govt drones would be used "wisely", which is questionable to say the least.

  19. Speaking of privacy concerns regarding developments in the private sector, dig this bit of transhumanist awesomeness:

    1. Oops. The link appears to be broken. Anyway, it was to a story about a patent filed by Nokia for embedded metal tattoos that vibrate to indicate various notifications on your smartphone. I'm too lazy to find the correct URL so you should search for it if interested.

  20. John Yoo would probably make a film about a private sector drone and a public sector drone facing off against each other with chrome-plated handguns with slow motion white doves taking off in the background.

  21. So more important than worrying about whether the NYPD or DHS uses drones, are what rules our society will choose to govern and constrain the private use of drones. It may ultimately be difficult to control; as drone technology allows for smaller and cheaper drones, the government will have less and less ability to regulate them.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.