Mar 4, 2014 · 7 minutes

Facebook is reportedly in talks to buy a drone manufacturer to make use of its 11,000 high-altitude flying machines, some of which could be dispatched to Africa to connect more people to the Internet. The drones would be developed and built by Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico-based manufacturer that Facebook is looking to acquire for $60 million, a fraction of what it paid for WhatsApp.

Titan claims that its drones, which emulate satellites at a portion of the cost, can operate autonomously for up to five years. After the drones are deployed they can hover above the clouds, harvesting solar energy and offering Internet connectivity to anyone within range. Facebook could use these flying robots, the data compression utility it acquired in October, and its time-sucking website to create a population of new Internet users dependent on its services.

To do that, it first needs to separate the technology -- autonomous vehicles -- from the perception that drones are simply a tool of the American military and intelligence services used to assassinate enemy combatants in other countries. Then it needs to convince its users that it can be trusted with yet another way to gather information about them. Then, finally, it might be able to realize its drone-powered future.

Drone strikes have become an integral part of the United States' counterterrorism efforts. The United States is estimated to have launched 461 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia between 2002 and 2013, and these strikes have killed some 3,520 people -- 457 of them civilians -- and wounded many more. Both Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch have alleged that the U.S. is guilty of war crimes because of this so-called "drone war."

This has created a world where many innocent civilians live in a state of perpetual fear. According to the Living Under Drones report published by the Stanford Law School and NYU's Global Justice Clinic:

Interviewees described the experience of living under constant surveillance as harrowing. In the words of one interviewee: 'God knows whether they’ll strike us again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack.' Another interviewee who lost both his legs in a drone attack said that '[e]veryone is scared all the time. When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We’re always scared. We always have this fear in our head.'
While the number of drone-related deaths fell in 2013, and the Obama administration has said it intends to curtail drone strikes, the technologies are expected to remain in use. In the meantime, the people who live in these countries are living with one eye turned to the sky. Are they really supposed to believe that every drone they see -- or think they see -- is offering Internet connectivity instead of monitoring their activity or preparing to strike them dead?

It's possible some will be wary of connecting their phones to a network offered via drones, whether it's owned by the US government or Facebook. That's because drone strikes are often targeting someone's cell phone instead of the person itself, according to a report published by the Intercept in February:

According to a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA, the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.
The report points out that this information is often gathered by drones:
As the former JSOC drone operator describes – and as classified documents obtained from Snowden confirm – the NSA doesn’t just locate the cell phones of terror suspects by intercepting communications from cell phone towers and Internet service providers. The agency also equips drones and other aircraft with devices known as 'virtual base-tower transceivers' – creating, in effect, a fake cell phone tower that can force a targeted person’s device to lock onto the NSA’s receiver without their knowledge.
This means individuals connecting to the Internet via a network beamed down from the drone-filled heavens will have to hope they aren't re-routed to a drone the U.S. government can use to gather information about their locations or activities.

Facebook could simply avoid working in or near countries in which the U.S. is surveilling or attacking suspected terrorists, of course. But given the counterterrorism apparatus' opinion that the entire world is a battlefield coupled with Facebook's need to spread throughout the globe, such limitations would be untenable in the long-term. If the company wants to convince another couple billion people that the Internet (and Facebook) has something to offer them, it will inevitably find itself operating in countries where its drones would have to share the skies with the government's drones.

Some 26 percent of people living in the Middle East are connected to the Internet. Ignoring markets in which 74 percent of people aren't connected to the Internet, even if they live in places where the government restricts access to much of the Internet, goes against Facebook's stated goal of bringing Internet connectivity to as many people as possible.

Now, there is nothing inherently malevolent about drones. They are simply another technology that could allow companies like Amazon to deliver packages, companies like Facebook to offer Internet connectivity, and governments like the US federal government to attack their targets.

But that doesn't mean that these drones will be accepted by the people Facebook is hoping to "help." They have been taught through a decade of covert warfare that drones are harbingers of death that kill innocent grandmothers, bomb wedding convoys, or kill American teenagers who were born without "a more responsible father." Expecting them to welcome flying robots, no matter what their purpose, is naive.

Even if Facebook addresses those concerns, it might be difficult for users to trust the company with drones. It depends on advertising revenues, which means it gathers users' personal information and keeps it for as long as it needs to. It already accomplishes this by collecting information on users' location gleaned from their smartphones, following its users around the Web, and monitoring everything they've ever typed into its many text boxes.

Giving the company the ability to track the location of anyone using its drone-powered networks regardless of whether they're interacting with Facebook or not would greatly increase the company's surveillance capabilities. Allowing it to do so via devices that can capture aerial imagery -- and, with the right equipment, look through walls -- would be like giving the company a crystal ball.

Facebook has a checkered history with privacy. The company riled some users by introducing features like the News Feed, the now-defunct Beacon advertising platform, and placing profile photos in advertisements for products these users had no intention of endorsing. Nearly half of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's posts on the company's blog involve his apologizing for some product change or privacy scandal or another.

That's what the company has done with information gleaned through a Web browser. Now imagine what a privacy scandal could look like when that data was scooped up via drones.

Maybe the company could use aerial imagery to see that the paint on top of someone's car has started to peel, a perfect opportunity for an auto shop to advertise its painting service. Perhaps it could monitor the users accessing its networks and determine who is spending time with whom without either of them ever mentioning it on Facebook. Then the company could use its vast databases to figure out that this person is spending more time with someone who isn't his wife and use that information to advertise chocolates and lipstick remover. (It could also display an ad for a private investigator to the user's wife -- coincidentally, of course.)

Drones wouldn't simply allow Facebook to bring Internet connectivity to more people; they would also allow the company to gather information about its users in even more ways. Considering the ease with which that information could be intercepted by intelligence agencies and the fear with which many regard drones, that will be easier said than done.

If it looks like a government drone, spies like a government drone, and transfers information to the same intelligence agencies as a government drone, chances are it will be viewed with the same fear as a government drone.

Good luck, Zuck.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]