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Military, Police Drones May Lead to Supreme Court Ethics Fight

The large-scale deployment of drones by the U.S. military to track and kill enemies, as well as the use of the unmanned planes by police forces for surveillance, may lead to legal disputes about the rights to self-defense and to privacy, according to an article published today in the journal Nature.

The use of drones is “a Supreme Court case waiting to happen,” wrote Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, quoting an unnamed U.S. federal district court judge.

The U.S. Defense Department operates more than 7,000 aerial drones and 12,000 unmanned ground systems, Singer wrote, and the Miami and Ogden, Utah, police departments have sought licenses to operate surveillance drones.

Still, researchers, manufacturers, and military and civilian users of the drones, as well as regulators and policy makers, have yet to address the legal implications of using robots for military and police missions, Singer wrote.

Failure to consider “these issues of law and ethics can have immense consequences,” he wrote.

The U.S. already is drawing a legal distinction between deploying forces and using drones, Singer wrote, citing President Barack Obama’s argument earlier this year that he did not need to seek congressional approval for military operations against Libya because only unmanned planes were used.

Drone Defense

The U.S. Air Force says its unmanned spy planes, when targeted by enemy radar, have the same right to retaliate as manned airplanes, Singer wrote. Conferring such self-defense rights to drones may lead to legal disputes and international crises, he wrote, “as well as a huge (and probably unintentional) first step for the cause of robots’ rights.”

“Using a submarine to attack shipping, for example, was once science fiction,” Singer wrote. “When it became reality, the dispute over ‘fair use’ of such technology” drew the U.S. into World War I after its ships were sunk by German submarines.

U.S. drone makers include Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp.; Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman Corp., maker of the Global Hawk plane; Chicago-based Boeing Co.; and San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., maker of the Predator drones.

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