Joh – The Undue Influence of Surveillance Technology Companies on Policing

This week we consider the relationship and impact between technology companies and police surveillance. The article we are reviewing is by Elizabeth E. Joh, and comes from the New York University Law Review, Vol.92 Sept 2017, 101-130.

Here’s what we thought:


This paper is interesting for the way in which it explores the marketisation of law enforcement and policy making, with technology manufacturers such as Taser and others gaining undue influence over what the police do, and the decisions that get made. These problems emerge from the increasing reliance on technology provided by a limited number of vendors, each of whom may have interests beyond the mere application of law. There also then seems to be a problem of unfair competition, wherein companies such as Taser gain new contracts on account of existing business relationships. We are getting to a stage then when not only does technology start to dictate use, but the design decisions behind certain new technologies are then influencing policy decisions, even though design decisions will not have been made on exclusively law-enforcement lines.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


As of the time of writing, the newspapers are full with articles on the Carpenter ruling, so this article seems especially timely.  From a policy standpoint, I personally feel that this is an important subject about which there is little public awareness yet, which is troublesome. The actions of industry seem like they could seriously threaten human rights and civil liberties, and it is important to scrutinise these practices with a public debate. The influence of private actors in public policy is of course not limited to law enforcement and juridical practices, but in these sectors human rights are especially at risk. The issues described will likely also become important issues in the world of defence technology as well. 

However, I considered the level of analysis in article not seem extremely substantive. I would have appreciated a more in-depth analysis of how the industry acts as an actor in this debate, and what the result are of their influence on law enforcement and juridical practices, and what the larger societal implications are of these practices. I would also be very interested in a more in-depth investigation in the view of law enforcement on these developments. The actual political and societal processes in play are not really analysed. However, as this is a legal article, that is also to be expected. 

The article is very US-based, both through the empirical cases and the legal analysis, as is a lot of literature on the subject. I would be very interested to read more on this European perspective, both on the actual use, and on the legal and political analysis, and to see whether there are any significant differences. Digo’s articles on this subject are very European-focused so they provide an interesting contrast, but the methodological and theoretical approach is very different. Most of the articles on European surveillance technology come from International Political Sociology it seems – which is a great theoretical framework, but I wish the subject was taken up more by other schools as well. 

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels 


This piece by Joh was really interesting. The increasing use of surveillance technologies by police services continues major trends two trends, firstly the militarisation of the police, and secondly the increasing influence of technology companies in job roles. The militarisation of the police is often poorly described as though the purchasing of body armour and helmets to protect officers in crowd control or counter-terrorism situations is a bad thing, and that the police want to go to war with the populace. However, the reality is more that technologies used by militaries when performing similar operations can easily migrate to police-use. For example, technologies used to assist a manhunt for a terrorist in a warzone can also be used in a man hunt for a murder suspect in a crowded city. However, as Joh suggests, the fact that in both situations technology firms exert undue influence on policy and obfuscation of how these technologies work when they have a public impact in unnerving. 

When we think of the increasing influence of technology companies, we often fall into Hollywood imaginaries where corporate technology giants have some sort of ideological bent towards unrivalled political power which requires masses of data and the sacrifice of privacy. Yet, the reality is that this increasing influence is often driven by market forces and a simple desire to keep up with, or ahead of, competitors. The increasing presence of technology in policing is also a reflection of its increasing presence in all of our lives, and the drive toward greater and greater automation. Years ago, beat cops were the eyes and ears of police forces, nowadays technological surveillance can do the same tasks without needed ever expensive pay or conditions. Yet, the fact that policing is a public service, and we associate policing with the presence of officers, means that we are uneasy about such automation, and the handing over of such tasks to machines. Perhaps the real story behind all of this is that humans simply prefer dealing with other humans whom they can develop trust and relationships with, rather than machines which you do not understand. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Sandvik – The Political and Moral Economics of Dual Technology Transfers: Arming Police Drones

This week we consider another of Kristin Sandvik’s pieces on police drones. This piece is focussed on their political and moral economies and is from the book Drones and Unmanned Aerial Systems, Aleš Završnik (ed.) from Springer (2016).

Here’s what we thought


This article explores the ongoing social dialogue surrounding the use of drones. In particular the article focuses on the construct of the ‘good’ drone, compared with the ‘bad’ drone, which we might infer refers here to the type of drone used for targeted killing in foreign lands. The imputation here is that the drone industry in particular a discourse around the ‘good’ drone, while all the while laying the foundations for the inevitable arrival of armed drones in the domestic space.

I was quite taken with the author’s concept that: ‘Open-ended possibility as a value in itself is an important part of the ongoing and future constitution of armed drones’ (14). That, in effect, the very fact ‘anything is possible’ is used as a selling point of the technology is also simultaneously preparing us for the inevitable arrival of something far worse. This is an interesting problematic, and one that is not unique to the modern drone. Indeed, the oscillation between technology as a boon, and technology as a potential evil has been going on since at least the end of WW2, and the emergence of the microchip and transistor in the 1950s/1960s. It is interesting then that here, the dynamic seems to be used directly by the technology industry to pave the way for a less-than-necessarily-positive outcome.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I reviewed the articles The Political and Moral Economies of Dual Technology Transfers: Arming Police Drones (2015) & Public Order Drone: proliferation and disorder in civil airspace (2016)  together as they are closely related.

The discussion on drone surveillance is one that is interesting, but covered a lot in the literature already. The drone industry’s fight to access the airspace however is one less covered, and therefore a greater contribution to the literature. For more work on this issue, I would also recommend checking out Chantal Lavallee, who analyses this especially from an European perspective. I thought the main argument of the article was very interesting. I would have loved a more in-depth analysis on the critical interplay between industry and police forces, to get a better insight into their interactions and which societal pushes stem from which actor. While I like the many examples and anecdotes the author presented, I do think the article is very descriptive, with less argumentation why her analysis fits the situation best. Nonetheless overall it was good food for thought. I find it extremely interesting to see how the industry views the public: This article was really illuminating for me in that respect and I would be very curious to see how the industry sees the public on various different issues concerning emerging technologies, and how it compares. As public order drones have proliferated extremely rapidly the past 2 years since this has been written, I would also be interested to see whether the public has been educated “successfully” since then.

I think it is easy to immediately dismiss the notion that arming police drones is coming soon. It is not likely at the present moment, especially in a country like Norway, where the author comes from, where the police generally does not even carry weapons. However, the author makes it clear that she is analysing the larger process of how society is moving towards that development, and more specifically the factors that impact the shaping of the “moral economy”. I think that is the most important thing to focus on: it is an analysis of the process, not the result.

I have doubts about the choice of a Switchblade as the frame of analysis though. I have not often seen an interest in industry for small loitering munitions like that. Another armed tactical UAV perhaps, but the Switchblade only has a small loitering time (30 minutes) and I would not personally consider that the most likely future armed drone of law enforcement.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels


The part of Sandvik’s article which I found most interesting was the idea that the increasing use of micro-drones could keep boots on the ground, rather than remove the need for them as the use of larger predator and reaper drones suggests. I’m not entirely convinced that ground troops using micro-drones will result in them remaining deployed for longer. Micro-drones offer soldiers a tactical advantage over their immediate adversaries, yet ground troops will only remain deployed if their role is strategically beneficial.

I completely accept that if a ground force using micro-drones were to become enormously effective at killing the enemy, then their continued presence could become a strategic issue. However, we know from recent conflicts in Afghanistan, and in Iraq and Syria, that even where (more) ground troops would increase the likelihood of victory, they will not be deployed where their presence is not a strategic imperative that can be sold to the public. Indeed, whilst a large-scale Western ground troop deployment would have eliminated ISIS very quickly, the lack of political will and strategic importance means that air power made up the majority of Western deployments, alongside special forces. Indeed, as special forces are a strategic force, and there have been many reports of them using micro-drones in their operations against high-value ISIS targets. It is perfectly possible that they would continue to be deployed against ISIS, perhaps adding to the idea that Western nations are engaging in perpetual war against Islamist extremists.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think in the comments below

Sandvik – The Public Order Drone: Proliferation and Disorder in Civil Airspace

This week, we consider the use of drones in creating and maintaining public order, particularly by the police. We are commenting on a chapter from ‘The Good Drone’ (Ashgate, 2016) by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik.

Here’s what we thought:


Closely related to another piece we are reading this month, this article focuses on the proliferation of drones and the potential for disorder associated with their use. In particular, the author examines the ‘systematic blurring of the boundaries between the military and the civilian’ (11), and the use of discourse surrounding the ‘good’ use of drones to prepare citizens for the ‘paramilitarization’ of policing (8) – the use of military technologies on civilian populations.

For me, this blurring between the military and the civilian is an interesting one, though it is certainly nothing new. However, with the technology now so widely available, and accessible even by members of the public, it would seem that the marketisation of technology becomes a powerful tool for normalisation. The more a technology is made available and presented as ‘good’ with ‘endless possibilities’, the more we are also implying the dangers of exact same technology, and laying the groundwork for other possibilities not explicitly stated. Before we know it, we are no longer asking whether drones should be used in situations such as law enforcement and public order, but rather how and in what ways.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


Sandvik’s “The Public Order Drone: Proliferation and Disorder in Civil Airspaceprovides a valuable account of the emergence and expansion of the “public order drone” narrative. The chapter explores the interplay of narratives that are both constituting and potentially undermining efforts to normalise/legitimise the concept of the ‘good’ drone for public order policing.

The author frames this piece in a practical way, taking the reader through a series of discussions to analyse the public order drone narrative in different contexts. The initial section lays the foundation by presenting the rationale behind the public order drone narrative. As Sandvik notes, due to the negative associations often tied to drones as a result of their use in warfare, identifying and promoting “good” uses for drones has become central to the drone industry in an effort to address this underlying and persistent “public relations issue”. Sandvik describes this industry effort as a “crafted moral economy of ‘good’ drones” (p. 6) aimed at normalising the broad range of drones and their seemingly endless number of uses. Four areas of discussion are then focused upon to present the reader with a view of how the meaning attached to the concept of the public order drone has been expanded. These areas concern: the blurring of the line between the military and the civilian; the shift from surveillance to weaponisation in public order policing; the forms of disorder caused by drone proliferation; and both the endless possibilities and risks associated with drone use.

Of particular interest to me was Sandvik’s section on disorder. Summed up nicely earlier in the chapter, the author draws attention to the paradox inherent to the public order drone narrative: “order and disorder are intimately connected: the endless, public-order uses imagined for drones are mirrored by endless possibilities for disorder” (p. 3). Sandvik also notes in her introduction that the notion of “drone disorder” – referring to both disorderly drones (flying rogue) and disorder created by drones such as “panic or suspicion in the face of events such as drone flyovers of nuclear installations” —must be taken into consideration together with all of the promises and perceptions of order. I was disappointed, though, that the concept of disorder created by drones was not expanded upon to its full potential later in the chapter. Whilst a discussion was undertaken that considered some of the responses underway due to the desire to protect sensitive or military sites from flyovers, the issue of panic and suspicion was not directly referred to again and I felt this was a missed opportunity as it could have been expanded upon in other contexts to further highlight the paradoxical nature of the public order drone narrative.

Overall, I found this an interesting piece to read and think the author has established a useful account of how the meaning around the public order drone has evolved as different perceptions and influences have simultaneously enriched and complicated the overarching narrative. It will be interesting to see how the narrative continues to develop as new technological developments, designs and uses for the public order drone emerge.

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University


Sandvik’s discussion of police armed drones really interested me. However, I think the idea that police-owned drones could be equipped with rubber bullets, fireable tasers, or even live bullets might be a bit fanciful. A flying drone is not a very stable platform from which to launch a projectile. Thus, bullets and tasers fired from an unstable barrel are not likely to hit their target. The advantage military drones firing missiles have is that missiles can be guided. However, police do not generally use any form of arms that could be guided. Thus, police drones would be restricted to only firing that which they could accurately hit a target with, or would need to use projectiles where pin-point accuracy is unnecessary, such as deploying tear-gas.

The surveillance capability of police drones would not be affected by this, however. Surveillance alone can be a powerful tool for the police. A criminal knowing they are being watched is unlikely to carry out a crime If they think they will be caught and punished. Thus, the presence of drones, just as with the presence of CCTV, can deter crime. When it comes to CCTV, we accept the temporary intrusion into our privacy. I don’t think this changes just because the camera could move if attached to a drone. However, we accept CCTV as a condition of visiting a particular shop, or establishment, but if we were to be regularly surveilled by drones, we would be accepting an intrusion into our privacy on the condition of simply being allowed to exist in a particular location. It is that which seems so unnerving about surveillance drones, in order to live or work as we want we would also need to accept intrusions into our privacy from which there is no escape. Such occurrences go beyond security, and go into societal control.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think in the comments below.