Drones on College Campuses

Predator DroneWith your indulgence I thought I would approach a university CIO issue from a slightly different and tangential direction. The issue is privacy. The angle is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and micro unmanned aerial vehicles (MAV) which most of us know simply as – drones. I am not going to tackle whether we should have drones or not.

What I hope to do is focus some attention to the institutional core values, ethics and privacy policies as they relate to having drones on college campuses. This is mostly food for thought that seemed appropriate this July 4th week for CIO’s and other university administrators.

FAA Releases List of Drone Certificates

Under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Electronic Freedom Frontier the FAA recently released the list of Certificates of Authorization (COA) for domestic drone uses by public and private entities. The FAA requires a COA for any drone flying over 400 feet in American airspace.

Of the 61 entities that applied for a COA were 25 colleges and universities. Of the 25 applications only one request by the Georgia Tech Police Department was denied. 6 of the COA’s have since expired with 18 COA’s remaining active.Drones on College Campuses

Drones on College Campuses

With the exception of Georgia Tech’s interest in using drones in their police department, all other uses of drones on college campuses appear to be exclusively for research and academic purposes.

Many of the COA listed schools and even more not holding COA’s are using UAV’s and MAV’s to enhance engineering, math, science, and technology programs and R&D work aimed at solving some very interesting challenges.

Many schools are enjoying new revenues for staff positions and labs in support of UAV research which includes funding from various government agencies and private sources including DoD and Homeland Security contractors.

UAV, MAV and unmanned drone technology is not exclusively used for military, intelligence, surveillance, or civilian law enforcement. NASA, NSF, NOAA, Department of Agriculture and a host of civilian companies are supporting research in remote sensing and geospatial applications.

Allure of UAV, MAV & Drone Research

Spybug MAVOne look at the amazing UAV and MAV projects like the “spybug” (John Hopkins) shown here and you know it’s a sexy draw for top researchers and students.

Experts predict domestic some 30,000 drones will be flying in the US in the next 5 to 10 years. This makes UAV, MAV and drone R&D a very attractive revenue source to universities from R&D funding and technology transfer fees.

This may be especially true for those universities and community colleges focused on local and regional economic development experiencing an economic boon from the drone industry or with existing ties to the aviation and aerospace industries.

Core Values, Ethics, and Privacy

There are two main concerns related to drones. The main concern in recent years has been the use of drones by the CIA in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere to carry out targeted killings.  For many in the world this raises serious challenges to international human rights laws and the rules of ethical warfare.

The more recent and growing concern is the domestic use of drones for law enforcement,  intelligence gathering and threats to air traffic safety. Just this weekend we learned researchers at the University of Texas at Austin hijacked an unmanned drone on a challenge by Homeland Security by hacking a weakness in UAV GPS navigation systems.

The question for universities to consider then is how does supporting research into UAV and MAV technology which advances domestic surveillance, weaponizing UAV’s for domestic law enforcement, or continued use in surgical strikes square with the universities core values, ethics and privacy policies?

In case you think this is just about potential government abuses of UAV’s and MAV’s on its citizens let me also mention the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications now has a Drone Journalism Lab to explore applications of unmanned drones in journalism.

Conflicting Values

In reading the myriad of missions, core values, guiding principles, ethics policies, and privacy policies of the universities on the FAA CAO list I had a hard time imagining how some universities rationalize their work in UAV’s and drones.

Seeking additional clarity, I also read as many policies on their research ethics as I could find. As expected there were lots of commitments to the highest integrity and ethical standards. But honestly, I was more than confused by a few universities recognition of its ethical obligation to the humane treatment of animals used in research only to remain silent on the ethics of developing drone technology for use by the military or the intelligence community.

Just as puzzling were the universities with strong policies on privacy, cyber bullying and cyber spying who are engaged in developing intelligence and surveillance applications of UAV’s and MAV’s.

Then there are universities that are doing extensive work in drone research while at the same time their law schools rail against the use of drones to fight terrorism and the privacy rights concerns over domestic uses.

Privacy Policies

CIO’s have a direct role on a range of policy matters concerning ethics, security, privacy, and civil liberties. As a department head and senior leader on campus CIO’s help to influence and shape the institution’s mission, core values, ethics, and its code of conduct.

When it comes to college privacy policies I don’t recall ever finding one that was not exclusively focused on online privacy relative to the collection, tracking and use of user data. Perhaps it is time to revisit the privacy policies with a broader view. Maybe it is time to incorporate cyber spying or cyber bullying provisions and link to a new core value of privacy.

But what I really wonder is if CIO’s will lead a new renaissance in technology ethics that mimics bio-ethics or medical ethics which can guide research and operational uses of technology on campus not just on drones.

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