Photo Courtesy of Sri Lanka Army

Many are familiar with drone technology as a highly advanced aerial technology. Drones have become increasingly useful for organizations such as the United Nations to provide relief and essential items including food and medicines to victims in areas that cannot be easily accessed. Similarly, some countries have used drone technology for the transportation and delivery of goods or even war related activities. In Sri Lanka, drones are commonly used for photography and videography of special events such as weddings and political rallies.

Drone journalism is a topic that is now under discussion and involves the use of drone technology for high quality and exceptional coverage. Much emphasis has been placed on utilising this technology within a specific regulatory/legal framework and with a sound understanding of ethics pertaining to this area. The discussions taking place around the world on this matter are a sign of its significance.

Yet this has not been the case in Sri Lanka. For example, when media coverage of the exhumation of the body of murdered journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge was banned by the Courts, one television channel used drones to record it.

However, it is the right to privacy that necessitates an ethical framework in the usage of drone technology, whether utilised for drone journalism or providing relief. The sensitivity surrounding the use of drones and its impact on people’s privacy and freedom has led to this becoming a critical topic around the world.

Rules and regulations regarding the limits and conditions of flying a drone and who can operate the technology must be considered in depth, especially in the context of conflicts and disasters. The use of drones in the COVID-19 context to observe civil spaces, especially without any mention of regulations or ethics, is a more worrying development than the pandemic.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, the founding editor of Groundviews, who was responsible for pioneering key discussions on drone technology in Sri Lanka said this in January 2017:

“I have flown, taught the use of and explored the ethics around content generated from drones for a number of years, within and outside Sri Lanka. I’ve looked at their use beyond war and offensive, weaponised use cases. Sales of consumer drones have soared over the past few years, making it a multi-billion-dollar global industry with a steep growth curve that shows no signs of slowing down. Two companies – Parrot and DJI – command this market, but in Sri Lanka, we also make our own drones. The University of Moratuwa’s Department of Electronic and Telecommunication Engineering tested Ravan, a medium sized drone in 2014 and its UAV Research Laboratory, opened the same year, has gone on to produce Ceyhawk, a more advanced drone capable of greater endurance and automation.

“The heightened interest in drones comes from their use for recreational purposes – filming holiday and tourist destinations, weddings or gala events – to journalism, where drones have been used to cover political party rallies, large scale natural disasters, man-made disasters and environmental issues. Unsurprisingly, what’s captured headlines of late have been the unethical or illegal use of drones – around the exhumation of graves, crashing into stupas, or flying over crowds with scant regard for public safety.”

However, at the time, there was no discussion about a special military regiment which would use drones to observe civil spaces.

The conversation was focused more around the opportunities to be gained through the use of drones. There was an effort to highlight the threat to privacy and freedom that could arise from the use of drones without adherence to any ethics. Initiated by Sanjana Hattotuwa, a number of training programmes for journalists on the ethical operation of drones were carried out in Colombo. The emphasis was on the duty and responsibility to ensure the protection of privacy.

Today, many questions arise on the establishment of a Drone Regiment under the Artillery Regiment of the Sri Lanka Army.

Expressing his views on this issue, Sanjana Hattotuwa flags that drones with Zenmuse H20 technology, thermal imaging and night vision capabilities are no joke. He questions what privacy, ethics, data retention policies or legal framework these drone operations will function under.

The Army is to operate consumer grade to industrial grade drones. He stresses that, “What is being flown matters as much as who is flying it”.

This unit set up under the Army is not bound to follow regulations. Under such circumstances, on what basis can this project be justified?

It was reported that during the conflict, which ended in May 2009, the military used unmanned aerial technology to observe the North and East areas in a manner that had deep psychological impact on the citizens in those areas. In the backdrop of this history and a rule under the creators of such a history, can there be any guarantee of respect to privacy or ethics? What will be the limits and regulations? With what aim will these technologies be utilised? Who will operate them and for whose benefit? There have been no answers to these questions, only the label of “controlling the pandemic”. In such a context if the privacy and freedom of Sri Lankan citizens are being threatened, can this be prevented?

In response to a tweet published by the author on this issue an individual said, “This is a good method to catch criminals, but the issue is, what about the civil/human rights of ordinary citizens?” This is a crucial point because it represents a certain segment of society. However, it must be carefully analysed.

In any country, including Sri Lanka, it is the police that have the power to exercise civil law and criminals are brought before the law by the police. If drone technologies are used to catch criminals, this should be carried out by the police force. Even so, this should be done under the regulations of the CAASL. Therefore, one should ask why has this been brought under the military? Why is the military not bound by regulations? This would be acceptable under a military state. If so, is Sri Lanka a military state? Or is it in preparation to be one? In a context where military officials carrying guns are executing the tasks of health and police officials, these questions are fair.

The SLA stated the following regarding the new Drone Regiment. “The unmanned light aerial vehicles (DRONE) regiment which was established under the Sri Lanka Army is comprised of highly technical elements, and can operate small and medium size drones to observe military and non-military situations’.

In a democratic society we are owed some direct answers.

Who decides what non-military situations are? With an active police force to enforce the civil law, what is the legal basis for a military unit functioning without any law or regulation pertaining to drones?

Observing private civil spaces and storing images and data collected through such observations with no legal basis purely under the guise of the pandemic has serious impacts on democracy and freedom. The risks and consequences of this dangerous development have not been realised by the public. There has been no effort to do so either. It must be understood that not bringing the military under any law and ethics is yet another attempt to shrink the democratic space in the country.

You have a right to protest unregulated and unethical drone surveillance of your private life. This right rests on the respect and value we place on the right to privacy as a basic human right. If not, the day when military drones take over citizens’ private life and freedom is not too far.

“To understand militarization, one need not have soldiers with guns, artillery and armoured cars on the streets.”


Translated from Vikalpa