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What the Gatwick drone says about life today

By Jack Palfrey

Jan 5, 2019

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2018 was a weird year. Taking in the news was like forcing yourself to sit through some bizarre improvised pantomime with neither the cast or audience having the faintest clue what’s going on, or why they’re even there. It never let up for a second and then December came along to tell us that, nope, things can still get even more ridiculous. May’s calamitous Brexit continued to rapidly cave in on itself, leaving no confidence motions being flung around and the reality of a no-deal Brexit start to sink in. Thankfully though, all of that quickly became old news when Jeremy Corbyn had the audacity to call a stupid woman a stupid woman, which erupted in a whirlwind of opportunist faux-outrage and calls for the Labour leader’s horrible misogynistic head on a stick. And then, enter the final act: a story that summed up this stupid and surreal year perfectly, the Gatwick drone.

It was brilliant, really. Somehow, despite a massive police and military operation, a rogue drone managed to effectively shut down Gatwick Airport—the U.K.’s second biggest—for three days. Hundreds of flights were cancelled and thousands of Christmas commuters were left stranded at airports around the world. Naturally, the public went into a media-fuelled frenzy and a tonne of theories began to circulate: was it Russia, or maybe Isis? Was it eco-activists? Was it Brexit protesters, either #FBPE lunatics or militant gammons? Or, was it just some spotty teenager who’d got bored of using his toy to creep on the girl-next-door? No one knew anything, this was something completely new.

Amazingly, as the chaos started to die down and flights resumed, the story still continued to get even more crazy. The police thought they had their guys, a couple were arrested and their identities released, spreading like wildfire across front-pages, and the public let out a collective sigh of relief now that this hellish nightmare was finally over. Then it turned out it wasn’t them after all and the suspects were let go, leaving the police back at square one. Officials would then go on to be quoted as saying that there may not have even been any drones at all and, later, that some of the sightings may have just been their own drones. Oh.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling also came under fire after it was revealed that he’d recently shelved new legislation to regulate the use of drones despite numerous warnings; choosing to allocate more civil servants to work on Brexit instead. The media hysteria surrounding it and the shambolic investigation itself, though really quite funny, said a depressing amount about life today— making for a perfect metaphor of our total inability to grasp and control new technologies. If a toy helicopter can cause this much of a shitshow, we’re in a world of trouble.

If you ask me, everyone should have been listening to the Turing-level technological genius of Tory MP Liz Truss, who suggested that perhaps we should be using barking dogs to deter drones. Ah of course, if only there were some Labradors running around at Gatwick. Why did no one think of that? In her defence, she did say that back in 2016. I hear their newest plan is to get a bunch of pensioners on zero-hour contracts to sit around swatting the drones away with a rolled-up TV guide. Not quite dogs but hey.

Forgetting drones for a second, this sort of tech-illiteracy at the level of policy-making is actually a pretty serious problem and says a lot about the struggle we’re going to face if we want to start regulating the growing powers of the tech industry. Just cast your mind back to earlier this year when Mark Zuckerberg had to appear in a hearing about Facebook’s misuse of data and a confused elderly Congressman asked how the social media platform could possibly make any money if it doesn’t charge users for the service… Again, this was a Congressional hearing about breaching data laws.

We live in a time where constant technological advances are changing the fabric of the world around us at every level. In the last couple of years, the realities of this have made themselves all too clear, and we’ve finally been seeing greater calls for state intervention in the world of tech. The only problem is, how can we expect any progressive change when those in charge of doing the regulating apparently have the technological know-how of someone that’s just came out of a fifty-year coma? If they don’t understand the fundamentals of how any of it works, how are they going to grasp the severity of the problems posed and go about resolving them? Whether it’s drones, data exploitation on an industrial level or all-out cyber warfare.