The Politics Of Using Drones In Animal Advocacy
Unpiloted aerial vehicles, a.k.a. drones, are an increasingly popular technology for capturing footage of factory farming operations. Their benefits over hand-held cameras include both improved range of coverage and covering longer distances, and inconspicuousness. What’s more, laws pertaining to drone use are unclear in some circumstances, so capturing drone footage potentially poses less legal risk for advocates and is more admissible as evidence in court than footage obtained through undercover work or trespassing.
But some people have reservations about the use of drones by animal advocacy groups. Some warn that drones paint a less complete picture than footage captured by humans. Additionally, the size and shape of drones, as well as flight laws, could restrict what activity that gets recorded; indoor practices are almost completely unobservable.
The authors of this study give the following arguments as to why drones are an acceptable tool for capturing animal footage in Australia:
- Animals are sentient beings worthy of moral concern. Drone use is justified because the footage obtained aims to improve animals’ lives.
- There is public concern. Australian free-range eggs were recently required to label the number of hens per hectare on egg cartons; although the results of this policy have yet to be seen, it is one of several examples that reflect increased public concern for farmed animal welfare.
- There are few people with access to factory farms who don’t have a vested interest in concealing their nature. Whistleblowing is rare amongst the few vets, transport workers, and other contractors who may visit the facility.
- Welfare monitoring is frequently outsourced to state departments or underfunded NGOs, the latter of which can have conflicts of interest. The RSPCA of New South Wales, for example, received partial funding through government subsidies and industry sponsorship in 2017.
- The lack of information available from non-government-affiliated organizations indicates a lack of transparency. Drone use by independent animal rights groups can expose the true practices on factory farms.
Those are the positive aspects. Drawbacks of drones include economic losses and social damage for farmers, as well as noise that could disturb both workers and animals. An agribusiness lawyer has previously expressed concern over ‘selective editing and sensational reporting’ of secretly captured footage, which they said could misrepresent actual operations.
The top concern, however, is farmer privacy. Drone surveillance may cause unintended personal harm to farmers by exposing their living quarters. There are also ethical concerns regarding the surveillance of private or family-owned farms, as opposed to large agri-businesses. Surveillance can cause people to feel stressed, and even the possibility of occasional surveillance can result in people feeling similar stress levels as if they were under constant surveillance.
The authors point out that stress-inducing surveillance methods often accompany a great imbalance of power (i.e. state monitoring of an individual). They argue that this power dynamic is not present in investigations by animal advocacy groups, who often have fewer resources than the organizations they’re monitoring. They dub this form of surveillance ‘sousveillance’.
Other potential harms of drone use include identification, disclosure, increased accessibility, and intrusion. The authors argue that these harms should be minimized when possible, particularly in the case of individual farms. Naming specific people or private farms should be done with extreme caution, as it is typically not as helpful to expose individual farms or people as it is to expose broader industry practices.
Finally, drone use poses a societal threat by exposing the privacy of corporations (which can be viewed being beneficial to society) and promoting the use of drones more broadly. The latter can inspire others to use the technology for their own counter-measures — for example, when PETA began using drones to follow animals being hunted, hunters began to look for the PETA drones and considered buying their own.
Drone use, of course, can also have positive outcomes. In 2013, Animal Liberation New South Wales (NSW) exposed a “free-range” egg facility that did not let their chickens roam. The farmer argued that the chickens were not let outside that day because they were being dewormed (though that claim was not proven). At the time, Animal Liberation NSW issued a complaint about the farm to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission — the outcome is not yet clear, but the footage generated public interest and was aired on national television. Additionally, the footage broke no laws and did not expose any personal information about the farmers.
The authors conclude that the benefits of drones outweigh the risks when used correctly. Though surveillance is inevitable, advocates should still aim to protect the privacy of individual farmers and their families. The dynamics between animal advocates and farmers also mitigates the overall impact of surveillance, since advocates typically possess less power.