Erica L. Neely

A Round-Up of Issues

Part Two – The Art of (Drone and Cyber) Warfare


This week I want to continue my overview of interesting philosophical issues that pertain to technology; you can read part one here if you missed it.


Drone Warfare: Figuring out exactly what to call this is tricky.  A lot of people talk about autonomous drones, but generally our combat drones aren’t fully autonomous in a philosophical sense – they are not completely in control of their own actions.  Often what we truly seem to be referring to is the ability to wage war remotely, through robots; a soldier may still be involved, but he or she is at a distance, seeing and acting through the drone.  There are a whole slew of ethical issues that arise from this capability, some of which echo the concerns with self-driving cars; in short, who do we blame if we end up killing civilians with them (for instance.)  If these are essentially just an extension of the soldier’s body, then perhaps we blame the pilot.  If the drone has more autonomy, blame becomes trickier.


However, the issue that I find most interesting in this area is whether drone warfare makes the cost of war too low.  In general, philosophers do not think war should be your first alternative; part of what has, traditionally, encouraged negotiations and diplomacy is that the cost of war is high – you don’t want to send thousands of your citizens to die, so you try to find other methods of achieving a desired result.  However, if your soldiers are remote (and thus not directly threatened by opposing soldiers), the cost to your nation becomes much lower.  While lowering casualties is generally a positive thing, this becomes problematic if only some nations have access to this technology; it means that the cost of war is low for them while it may be much higher for others.  And this, of course, makes the power imbalance tilt even further.


(I suppose if both sides had nothing but drones, we could fight it out with robots.  This will either turn warfare into some kind of glorified mechanized sporting event or will result in the utter devastation of civilian populations because when lacking in human combatant targets, the drones started settled for the humans who are around.)


Cyber Warfare: While I’m on this incredibly cheerful topic, I might as well throw this one in as well.  Our wars aren’t waged solely with soldiers.  Of course, we’ve known this for a long time; that’s why propaganda is so useful.  But now we can also attack other nations, companies, or even individuals without using a physical weapon.  At some level, such attacks have become fairly commonplace – many major businesses get hit with DDoS attacks* that take their websites down for a few hours.  The problem, of course, is that sometimes the result isn’t simply that you have to wait an hour to pay your credit card bill online; if the 911 system is hacked, people could die.  So why is this an ethical issue?  (i.e., why don’t I just say this is obviously wrong and thus there is nothing to discuss)


Well, what about a group like Anonymous?  Bear in mind that I’m looking at ethics, not law, so the fact that much of what they do is illegal is irrelevant.  If a government is itself corrupt and tries to suppress information from its citizens, civil disobedience seems an acceptable response; it seems ethically unproblematic to smuggle information into a totalitarian state, say.  Anonymous (and other gray-hat hackers) at least frequently claim to be working for the public good; are there times when this would be ethically permissible?  I’m not a utilitarian, so I’m not always swayed by “ends-justify-the-means” arguments.  Nevertheless, it seems likely that such actions would be ethically permissible in at least some situations – the trick is figuring out which ones.


(There is also a perpetual issue with white-hat hackers, who generally see themselves as hacking into things in order to help companies/agencies/etc. improve their security; this is not always viewed as benign, although it is certainly one of the more effective ways to catch security holes.  I suspect ultimately there is a worry about consent – if I agreed to have people try to hack in, then I regard anyone who does and reports my security flaws as being on my side.  If I didn’t agree, I may wonder about the motives of people hacking into my system; people don’t generally like feeling powerless, and knowing that some stranger can get in and mess around with things – even if they chose not to do so – may make my react badly, even if my reaction is somewhat irrational.  It will be interesting to see how public perception of hacking develops over the next few decades.)


I promised I would talk about information and access, but I’m out of time for this week.  Next week: Information and Access, this time for sure!


* (DDoS attacks are distributed denial-of-service attacks, in which multiple IP addresses target a machine or network in order to prevent normal users from being able to access it.  Essentially the people behind the attacks overwhelm the resource with more requests than it can handle; everything slows down or crashes and ordinary users are stymied.)

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