A worryingly flippant advert for a riot control drone. Photo: screenshot of "the Skunk" from Desert Wolf's website
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South African mining firm is the first to purchase riot control drone

The first purchase orders have been made for the Skunk Riot Control Copter, a terrifying unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with paintballs, pepper spray and blinding flashlights.

Drones are the latest buzzword. They're technologically advanced enough that we can marvel at their powers, but also surrounded by so much controversy that we fear their potential. From Amazon’s ridiculous and unlikely courier bots to military-grade Predators and Reapers that have already claimed thousands of lives in the Middle East and Pakistan, the media buzz surrounding drones can make discerning the genuine dangers lurking amidst innocent advancements tricky.

The latest development in remote-controlled aircraft is nothing new, technologically-speaking. “The Skunk” – as the South African makers, Desert Wolf, affectionately refer to their highly-armed robot – appears to be a simple mishmash of four paintball guns, an HD video camera and a light-and-sound system, all sitting atop an eight-bladed mini-helicopter. It's the world's first drone aimed at the riot control market.

Admittedly, it’s a little more complicated than that – the drones are linked up to a ground control station and are equipped with a variety of high-tech gadgets ranging from thermal cameras to strobe lights. But the real danger lies more in its applications than its circuitry. A single operator can control an entire formation of Skunks, which can be outfitted with more damaging ammunition. Each barrel is capable of firing up to 20 rounds per second and the paintballs can be easily replaced by pepper spray ammo or even solid plastic bullets. Desert Wolf claims this makes it capable of “stopping any crowd in its tracks".

The company, who specialise in military and surveillance applications, says the “Skunk Riot Control Copter is designed to control unruly crowds without endangering the lives of the protestors or the security staff". The Pretoria-based firm unveiled the heavily-armed octocopter at the IFSEC security trade show in May. Though the purchaser of the riot police robot is yet to be named, director Henry Kiesser told the BBC “it will be used by an international mining house”.

The thought of a private company equipped with crowd control security robots is scary. Various workers’ rights groups have expressed fear the drones will be abused by unscrupulous firms and police forces to harass and attack civilians striking or protesting.

On the Desert Wolf website the manufacturers claim they just want to reduce the risks to police and protesters:

The system also has a number of safety systems and features. Desert Wolf will continue to improve the design and ensure a safe and reliable product. Our aim is to assist in preventing another Marikana, we were there and it should never happen again.”

The devastating 2012 Marikana massacre was the country’s single most deadly use of force on civilians since apartheid. 34 striking miners were mercilessly shot dead by South African security forces during a strike over low pay and poor working conditions. This wasn’t a stand-alone dispute between employees and police. The owners of the multi-million dollar platinum mine, Belgravia-based firm Lonmin, have been implicated in the deaths; senior officials, including the head of security and executive vice-president, are accused of petitioning police chiefs to take a hard line with protesters.

Desert Wolf claim a robot would be safer in such scenarios. Speaking to the Guardian, Kiesser said drone control is the best solution"Anyone who was at Marikana would rather have this technology than live ammunition. People who say it's inhumane compared to 9mm bullets are idiotic."

Relative to killing people, merely wounding them with rubber bullets or pepper spray for daring to demand fair treatment might seem somehow reasonable - but, of course, it isn't. Solicitor James Nichols – who represents the families of the dead Marikana miners – told the Guardian the use of the drone was “absolutely outrageous”. “Using pepper spray like ammunition to scatter the crowd. People are entitled to be on strike. Who would make the decision? It's absurd."

A mining firm with 25 drones specifically designed to target its employees is immensely worrying, particularly as the ongoing strikes have lasted five months without a satisfactory end in sight and the families of the Marikana miners are still waiting for the conclusion of the official inquiry.

Even more perturbing is the huge interest in the drone from security personnel and police forces. Desert Wolf intends to export the product to other areas of Africa where legislation restricting drone use is weaker, and to run demonstration flights in Europe and America. Given the high degree of misuse and inaccuracy in the American military – the Brookings Institution estimates ten civilians are killed for each militant – the suggestion that these anti-riot robots could become ubiquitous is unsettling. Yet the Skunk claims to be different: Desert Wolf insist the drone system is both safe and accountable:

What makes the [ground control system] unique is the operator and his team are also under full video and audio surveillance. Every move, every decision, every command is recorded."

This may be (slightly) welcome news to civil liberties groups and trade unions, but the idea seems to be unique to the Skunk. Without laws stipulating this as a requirement for all civilian-targeting drones, protesters will forever be at risk from drone-controllers' blasé attitudes to targeting civilians.

In addition, this ignores the growing trend to remove humans from the decision making process in combat drone use. Speaking at the Convention on Conventional Weapons, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said:

The increasing involvement of a pre-programmed machine in several steps of the targeting and attacking process further blurs the question of who is accountable when something goes wrong. Clear accountability is essential to upholding the laws and norms of international humanitarian law."

Accountability was dispensed with over Marikana, where almost three hundred miners were charged with the murder of their fellow strikers. Private firms with poor human rights track records are the last people who should be entrusted with such dangerous technology.

Lifestage
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Everything that is wrong with the app Facebook doesn't want over 21s to download

Facebook's new teen-only offering, Lifestage, is just like your mum: it's trying too hard to relate and it doesn't care for your privacy.

Do you know the exact moment Facebook became uncool? Designed as a site to connect college students in 2004, the social network enjoyed nearly a decade of rapid, unrivalled growth before one day your mum – yes, your mum – using the same AOL email address she’s had since her dial-up days, logged on. And then she posted a Minion meme about drinking wine.

Facebook knows it’s uncool. It had a decline in active users in 2014, and in 2015 a survey of 4,485 teens discovered it came seventh in a ranking of ten social apps in terms of coolness. In fact, only 8 per cent of its users are aged between 13 and 19. This is the main reason the corporation have now created Lifestage, an app specifically for under-21s to “share a visual profile of who [they] are with [their] school network”.

Here’s how it works. After signing up and selecting their school, users are prompted to create a series of short videos – of their facial expressions, things they like, and things they dislike – that make up their profile. Once 20 people from any school sign up, that school is unlocked, meaning everyone within it can access one another’s profiles as well as those from nearby schools. Unlike Snapchat (and truly, this is the only thing that is unlike Snapchat) there is no chat function, but teens can put in their phone number and Instagram handles in order to talk. Don’t worry, though, there are still vomit-rainbows.

But with this new development, rather than hosting your mum, Facebook has become her. Lifestage is not only an embarrassing attempt to be Down With The Kids via the medium of poop emoji, it is also an invasive attempt to pry into their personal lives. Who’s your best friend? What do you like? What’s not cool? These are all questions the app wants teens to answer, in its madcap attempt to both appeal to children and analyse them.

“Post what you are into right now – and replace the video in that field whenever you want,” reads the app description on the iTunes store. “It's not just about the happy moments – build a video profile of the things you like, but also things you don’t like.” They might as well have written: “Tell us what’s cool. Please.”

Yet this is more than an innocent endeavour to hashtag relate, and is a very real attempt, like Facebook’s many others, to collect as much data on users as possible. Teens – no matter how many hot pink splashes and cartoon toilet rolls are used to infantilise them – are smart enough to have figured this out, with one of the 16 reviews of the app on the iTunes store titled “Kinda Sorta Creepy”, and another, by a user called Lolzeka, reading:

“I don't like how much information you have to give out. I don't want my phone number to be known nor do I want everyone to know my Instagram and Snapchat. I could not figure out how to take a picture or why my school was needed. Like I said, I don't want all my information out there.”

But Facebook already knows everything about everyone ever, and it’s not this data-mining that is the most concerning element of the app. It is the fact that – on an app specifically designed for children as young as 13 to share videos of themselves – there is no user verification process. “We can't confirm that people who claim to go to a certain school actually go to that school,” Facebook readily admits.

Although the USP of this app is that those over the age of 21 can only create a profile and aren’t allowed to view others, there isn’t a failsafe way to determine a user’s age. There is nothing to stop anyone faking both their age and the school they go to in order to view videos of, and connect with, teens.

Yet even without anyone suspicious lurking in the shadows, the app’s privacy settings have already come under scrutiny. The disclaimer says all videos uploaded to Lifestage are “fully public content” and “there is no way to limit the audience of your videos”. Despite the fact it is designed to connect users within schools, videos can be seen anyone, regardless of their school, and are “viewable by everyone”.

Of course none of this matters if teens don’t actually bother to use the app, which is currently only available in the US. Lifestage’s creator, 19-year-old Michael Sayman, designed it as a “way to take Facebook from 2004 and bring it to 2016”. Although he has the successful app 4Snaps under his belt, there is no guarantee Lifestage will succeed where Facebook’s other app attempts (Notify, Facebook Gifts, Poke) have not.

There are a few tricks Facebook has put in place to prompt the app to succeed, including the fact that users are ranked by how active they are, and those who don’t post enough updates will be labelled with a frowning or (here we go again) poop emoji. Still, this hardly seems enough for an app whose distinguishing feature is “Privacy? Nah.” 

Only time will tell whether the app will appeal to teens, but one thing is certain: if it does, your mum is totally downloading it.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.