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22 Oct, 2014 12:59

‘Killer robots’: Ex-GCHQ boss calls for drone controls

‘Killer robots’: Ex-GCHQ boss calls for drone controls

Commercial drones could be invading the UK within 20 years, used by everyone from terrorists to burglars, an ex-GCHQ boss warns. It found the growing use of drones raises “significant safety, security and privacy concerns.”

In a report released by the University of Birmingham Policy Commission, led by the former head of GCHQ Sir David Omand, it was found that the greater civil and military use of drones is inevitable.

The report said drones have “significant benefits” for the country’s security and economy. The government, however, should be open and transparent about the use, it said.

“For too long drone technology has carried a burden of ethical suspicion given its controversial use for counter-terrorist strikes by the US,” Omand said.

The report calls for a ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), or ‘killer robots’, which select their own targets, claiming it’s impossible to develop weapons that can distinguish between combatants and civilians, and would therefore fail to operate under international humanitarian law.

“We doubt it will ever be possible to program autonomous air systems to be able to exercise distinction between legitimate and illegitimate targets.

“We would like therefore to see the UK government take a leading role in discussions to build an international consensus around a set of norms to regulate, if not ban, LAWS,” Omand said.

Reuters/Euan Rocha

On Tuesday, the UK government announced it would deploy drones to Syria for surveillance and reconnaissance missions to gather intelligence on Islamic State (IS/ISIS).

READ MORE:‘Surveillance’: UK drones to be deployed in Syria against ISIS

RAF Reaper drones are already flying surveillance missions in Iraq, and Britain has joined the US-led coalition in bombing IS targets there.

“The recent decision to deploy RAF Reaper to Iraq is a welcome sign in line with our findings of the growing acceptance of RPA technology as an essential component of modern military capability – provided it is used strictly in accordance with international law, in the same way as for other UK weapons systems,” Omand said.

“We need not fear that their use by the UK Armed Forces represents a shift in the ethical framework of modern warfare.”

Drones have become a core part of UK missions overseas. Reaper drones have flown more than 4,800 missions in Afghanistan since 2008. The report found the UK has operated the technology according to “the same exceptionally strict Rules of Engagement (no weapon should be discharged unless there is ‘zero expectation of civilian casualties’) that it applies to manned aircraft.”

Ex-GCHQ chief Sir David Omand and John Scarlett (L), Chairman of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee. (Reuters/Toby Melville)

The report warns terrorists could turn drones into flying bombs by installing improvised explosive devices. Lightweight, smaller drones will also likely be used by paparazzi as their “weapon of choice” to get intimate photographs of celebrities.

“Crowds at sporting events or rallies could be vulnerable in a similar way if a future terrorist group were to look for means of dispersing chemical or biological agents,” it states.

The report also deals with the legal implications of British military and intelligence personnel working at US Air Force bases. Sir David warns that British personnel could be at risk of breaking international law for cooperating in the controversial drones program.

The American ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ (RPA) program has killed terrorists and civilians (often referred to as collateral damage) in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Omand called for new regulations to ensure the UK “does not inadvertently collude in RPA or other counter-terrorism actions that could be held contrary to international law.”

On Saturday, a 41-year-old man was arrested as a suspected drone pilot after a UAV flew over a packed Etihad Stadium during a match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.