WWF drones raise serious questions for international security

The World Wildlife Federation’s proposed plans to utilise drones in anti-poaching efforts raise serious concerns.

The WWF plans on using drones in its struggle to curb poaching, which could raise serious security implications [AP]

We are currently bearing witness to great changes in international security. Gone are the days of state monopoly over internal and external security agencies. State policing and military agencies are now serving alongside a variety of global, regional, and subnational security providers.

The latest to join this mix of non-state actors is the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), who just announced a new Google-backed anti-poaching campaign complete with drone surveillance. But, is this really a good idea?

In most situations, it would be quite inappropriate to consider WWF and Blackwater alongside one another for the purpose of serious inquiry. However, in this case, it is not a stretch to say that both the WWF drone surveillance program me and Blackwater security operations in Iraq represent real-world examples of the erosion of internal and external state security.

To be clear, this is not to argue moral equivalency between the two programmes. From a normative perspective, one can certainly differentiate between WWF, Anonymous, Green Peace, Executive Outcomes, Volunteer in Policing, Arbakai, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Neighbourhood Watch, and Blackwater.

But, from a theoretical perspective, all have challenged the state dominated status quo that has remained largely unchallenged since arguably the nineteenth century (at least in the West).

Al Jazeera Correspondent
The Last Rhino

For this reason, we must reject the emotional appeal of any one cause. Instead, we must rationally consider the serious political, legal, and moral questions posed by programmes such as WWF drone surveillance before endorsing such activities.

First and foremost, we need to ask whether it is ever in society’s best interest to have non-state actors increasingly undertake direct and indirect security missions in lieu of states.

In the aftermath of the Blackwater incidents in Iraq, there was a strong argument against the privatisation of military and policing operations by commercial companies. Yet, private military contractors continue to operate in conflict zones around the world and many officials call them essential components to security and commercial operations in destabilised countries.

How each person judges whether such developments are appropriate depends largely on: 1) How one defines security activities; 2) Whether one reasons that states possess the moral right or absolute comparative advantage over the provision of security services.

This of course introduces a deeply contested debate that few outside of think tanks and government have engaged. As a result, global consensus on this question remains ambiguous at best. That needs to change.

For argument’s sake, let us assume that non-governmental organisations should engage in drone surveillance in support of the anti-poaching cause.

This forces us to consider how such activities will affect the non-security (and at times non-combatant) status of their parent organisations given that they are voluntarily engaging in security-related activities. For it is clear that those targeted by their security programmes will view their employees, facilities, and infrastructure as legitimate targets regardless of whether their people and drones are armed. And, key actors in the state security agencies may start targeting organisations operating surveillance programmes for undercutting their kickbacks from poaching.

How then will these organisations protect their operations, especially in states that presumably lack the capacity to provide strong security protection in the first place? And, have these organisations even considered the collateral effects that their programmes might have on other non-state actors who choose not to undertake security-related missions?

In the case of the WWF drone programme, one must assume that the WWF leadership has considered these programmatic questions – at least internally. Now, they need to share these assesments and allow them to be scrutinised by outside technical, legal, and policy experts, and opened to public debate. The issues raised by anti-poaching drones are simply too big not to demand such transparency.

There are also some national security concerns arising from such programmes. Traditional domestic security actors may respond to foreign non-state actor encroachment in their security space with disdain since it comes at the expense of technology transfer, capacity building programmes, and perhaps even opportunities to enrich themselves. Who will bear responsibility for resolving these escalations? And, could such threats endanger United States government personnel or foreign policy objectives in the process?

Finally, we cannot ignore the very real possibility that these surveillance programmes will raise suspicions among foreign government security agencies. Many will be concerned as to whether such activities will be limited solely to their stated purpose. Whether we are talking about anti-poaching programmes in Africa or anti-piracy operations in Southeast Asia, their concerns will be heightened wherever the surveillance overlaps with one of their national interests regardless of who is operating the surveillance platform and with what intent.

For this reason, the WWF and others should expect to become surveillance targets themselves of foreign government security agencies even if they operate transparently and within the letter of the law. Is this something that their boards have considered and, if so, how will they mitigate such risks?

Ultimately, the point of raising this inquiry is not to criticise the WWF (and Google) for out-of-the-box thinking on how best to tackle anti-poaching, which is an important issue that should draw more international coverage. Instead, it is to point out that these new types of surveillance programmes raise serious questions that require more consideration by the international community.

Over the next few years, we can expect many more surveillance programmes that encroach on internal and external state security agencies to be fielded by non-state actors, especially in weak states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Unfortunately, it will be hard to know whether any of these initiatives will strengthen or weaken international security unless we look past the individual programmes and consider the bigger picture… together.

Commercial drones are here, but are we really ready to unleash them?

Eddie Walsh is a research degree candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Follow him on Twitter: @ASEANReporting