Boston Bombing, Manhunt Illustrate Drone Debate

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Police identified suspects in the Boston bombing from crowd photos and surveillance images.  They eventually located the last suspect using thermal imaging.

These examples show the exact kind of work law enforcement suggest could one day come from drones.

They also could stir up debate on surveillance in general.

University of Alabama in Huntsville Philosophy Chair William Wilkerson says, "Since the Patriot Act was passed and then reauthorized, there's been more of a discussion about beginning to limit it.  And I think that this will open it back up again to the possibility that we need more and not less surveillance.  So I think the debate will just heat back up again."

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So will the events in Boston change our views on surveillance or drones?

Wilkerson says, "The country as a whole has to make this decision about where it wants to set the balance.  We've been arguing about it ever since the Patriot Act, and we're still arguing about it.  And I think it's healthy that we're arguing about it, because it's a really important issue."

The debate may focus on the bombings and manhunt, but Wilkerson says it'll have much broader implications, "The question of drones goes to, I think, really the heart of some of the ethical underpinnings of our system of government.  So there's a question about privacy and security that is really important to understanding how our system works."

Wilkerson sees two conflicting philosophies butting heads in the realm of drone ethics, "There's two senses of security at work here.  There's security from government surveillance and intrusion that's enshrined in the fourth amendment, and then there's security from harm.  And finding that balance point is very, very difficult, especially in the world since 9/11."

Using drones could have more quickly identified suspects, but the practice might have also helped during the ensuing manhunt.

For example, law enforcement cleared many homes in person, exposing them to great individual risk.

A drone might have picked up the thermal imaging earlier and lead to the suspect more easily, reducing the chances of a surprise attack on members of law enforcement.

So if drones could cut the risk for law enforcement officers, do ethics obligate their superiors use them?

Wilkerson answers, "In some cases, it would be more safe and so probably more ethical based on a minimizing harm principle.  But minimizing harm principles are not the only principles that we use in deciding ethics.  We also use principles that are based strongly on the notion of individual rights, and those trump questions of harm."

And that's the bottom line with drones - there is no black or white, yes or no answer.

Wilkerson adds, "Being able to establish right and wrong is a very difficult thing to do.  It's not as easy as people think.  Thinking that there always are going to be clear lines is one of the grave mistakes I think we make in our ethical thinking."

While these debates may seem to only soar through the ether, we're seeing how they impact real people on the ground.

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