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.