The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Flying a drone can be an act of civil disobedience

Why we shouldn't use technology to prevent future landings at the Capitol.

A bomb disposal robot approaches the gyrocopter that landed on the Capitol grounds Wednesday (Michael Reynolds/EPA)
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A few minutes after a man, believed to be Douglas Hughes, landed a small aircraft on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, you could watch on TV as a remote-controlled robot poked and prodded at it. It was political protest, but also a confrontation between two technologies, one old and one new.

The new technology, the police robot, was there to minimize risk to the operator, while the gyrocopter, the anachronistic flying contraption, had just been used to deliberately put its operator at risk in order to make a political statement. The pilot apparently wished to trade his freedom temporarily, in a non-violent way, in order that his voice might be heard; landing on the Capitol grounds was how he chose to make that trade.

The landing will be the news story of the day, but the story shouldn’t be one about the safety or inviolability of airspace near the Capitol. Yes, the Capitol building is vulnerable. So is the White House, as was seen after a small drone accidentally crashed on the White House grounds in January. Such vulnerability ought to be a hallmark of America. The pilot may be punished (though one hopes he will be charged as the peaceful protester he appears to be and not as an ostensible terrorist.) But it is essential to democracy that such acts of civil disobedience be possible.

[Gyrocopter lands on Capitol lawn; pilot is arrested]

Before he took off (from Gettysburg, Pa., according to WTSP-TV), Hughes recorded a video which can be seen on the web page of the Tampa Bay Times, his hometown newspaper. “No sane person would do what I am doing,” he says. Hughes, a 61-year-old mailman, had grown disillusioned with corruption in American democracy following the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Though “The Civilist Papers,” a manifesto which appears to be co-authored by Hughes, may not be the most coherent political reform project ever put forth, there is still a difference between Hughes’s non-violent act of political speech and incursions like that of Omar Gonzalez, who, in September 2014, jumped over the White House fence and ran into the building carrying a knife.

The stakes here are higher than they appear to be. In response to the White House drone incident in January, DJI, the manufacturer of the drone that crashed, released a software update which prevented all flights in a 15.5-mile radius nearby. The update was an enhancement of a feature known as “geofencing,” which has acquired popularity among both government agencies and drone manufacturers eager to avoid the attention of government agencies. For now, such measures can be circumvented relatively easily by users. They are also limited to unmanned aircraft, and not present in manned aircraft such as Hughes’s, in cars, or on bicycles. Some measure of geofencing may even be a desirable safety mechanism. But increasingly, control over devices is shifting from the user to the manufacturer. This is a trend that must not continue inexorably.

On his web page, Hughes mentions Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau wished to “trace the effects of [his] allegiance” to the state. Such inquiry may become impossible if limitations baked-in to computer hardware and software increasingly limit the possible avenues for civil disobedience. We ought to be able to choose to comply with the law, rather than have such compliance be forced upon us by technological architecture.

As airspace becomes more crowded, the distinction between manned aircraft and drones will blur. It will be technologically possible for “geofencing” to be implemented on all aircraft. And if it is implemented on all aircraft, why not in cars, which will also all be equipped with GPS units and connected with the Internet? If in cars, why not in bicycles?

Arguing that non-violent rule-breaking ought to be possible is not arguing that rules ought not to exist. In this particular case, it makes sense to legally protect the airspace around the seat of our government from willy-nilly flights, whether of drones or manned aircraft. But we must not obscure Hughes’s deliberate, calculated sacrifice by writing him off as a loony and nothing more, and we must continue to make choices like his possible.

Abrogating the possibility of such choices removes an avenue of dissent from our democracy. Let us not further eliminate one of the few ways in which those without much money can nevertheless make their voices heard on the national stage, at great personal cost. There is a place for police robots like the one which tentatively circled around Hughes’s airplane. They can make us safer, and they can make us more efficient.

But if we allow our technologies to limit our speech as if we ourselves were robots, then we step back from Thoreau’s ideal of progress, “imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.” Fortifying the Capitol or the White House to make intrusions like today’s impossible isn’t only anti-democratic. It’s un-neighborly, too.