Drones as political machines: Technocratic governance in Canadian drone space

Ciara Bracken-Roche


The deployment of drone technologies across conflict spaces and urban spaces alike (see Jumbert and Sandvik 2017, Pugliese 2015, Wall and Monahan 2011) has been fuelled by a burgeoning surveillance-industrial complex (Hayes 2012), the confluence of economic interests and the securitization of risk (Aradau and van Munster 2011). Drawing on document analysis, from governmental and non-governmental sources, and semi-structured interviews with ~30 drone stakeholders in Canada, I argue that these technologies trouble traditional bounds of state and security (as will be elaborated on with Barry 2001, 2006). Feenberg (2004) argues that ‘technical action is an exercise of power’ and from their use for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in international contexts to policing domestic spaces, drones further amplify power imbalances between the operators and the objects of the drone’s sensors (Hall Kindervater 2016, Shaw 2016).

While commonly perpetuated discourses across industry groups represent domestic drones as benign sensing technologies as compared to militarized drones (Bracken-Roche 2016, Bracken-Roche et al. 2014), this chapter highlights how security professionals deploy particular narratives about drones to suit economic and political agendas. More so, it highlights how the case of drones (in Canada) represents a technological zone (Barry 2001, 2006). Understanding how this occurs in both civilian and military applications shows how these sensing machines dramatically shape public spaces and impact individuals across various contexts. Based on the data collected, and adding to current debates on drone technologies, boundaries, and materialities, I ask: how is the drone framed by economic and political discourses across an array of sociotechnical spaces? And, relatedly, what roles do drone systems and key actors play in shaping these environments?


It’s pretty clear that UAVs didn’t come from nowhere, they came from the military. They already came wearing khaki, they’re not neutral. That’s part of the industry rebranding what were clearly weapons and surveillance equipment as public toys.

Bracken-Roche, Interview 22 – Privacy Advocate, 2018

The rapid expansion of civil drone technologies over the past five to ten years has been met with excitement and trepidation. Commercially, drones are being adopted across a number of industries for dull, dirty, or dangerous jobs, and are positioned as the solution to any problem – or ‘like a solution looking for a problem’ (Hayes et al. 2014) – with the value of the global drone market expected to reach US$144.38 billion by 2025 (Adroit Market Research 2019). However, many academics, civil libertarians, and privacy advocates are concerned with the privacy and surveillance implications of the widespread adoption of drones due to their sensing, networked, and data collection capabilities (Bracken-Roche 2016; Bracken-Roche et al. 2014; Hayes et al. 2014; Finn and Wright 2012; Wall and Monahan 2011). In the Canadian context, regulations governing drone technologies are set by Transport Canada, the national transportation agency whose primary mandate is safety (Transport Canada 2017). The key actors involved in the regulatory process are government representatives and industry stakeholders, who have particular goals and interests around the rapid deployment of drones. The rapid evolution of drone technologies has spurned a growing drone industry in Canada, which is at odds with the slow regulatory pace (of government), let alone with consultation over public concerns with the technologies. This chapter uses Andrew Barry’s (2006) concept of technological zones to demonstrate how the different actors, networks, and regulations engaged with drones in Canada transcend traditional boundaries, and how this results in the interests of industry stakeholders at the fore. As technological zones tend to develop quickly, and with a lot of uncertainty, this limits the opportunity for much public consultation and amplifies imbalances in representation.

The current rules and regulations for drones in Canada are created by a working group at Transport Canada (TC), the national transportation authority, and the membership of this group is comprised of approximately 60% industry actors, 20% military actors, and 20% government actors (Bracken-Roche 2016, Bracken-Roche et al. 2014). The stakeholders from the working group connect to a larger and global network of players that are keen on adopting the technology for various organizational needs, such as within the civil defence arena. This has resulted in the emergence of an increasingly networked group of stakeholders that function more or less the same across corporate and government bodies, including the military, and across allied borders. They test, regulate, and deploy drones together across a number of setting which rests uneasily with the democratic notion of keeping civil and military powers separate, as well as implicating issues of autonomy and sovereignty. It further highlights the ways in which certain groups take privilege in shaping sociotechnical space and systems of security while others are excluded.

One such example of economic/industry interests driving drone development is seen in the case of specific (de)regulation of ‘low energy’ drones by the TC regulatory group (Gersher 2014a). This decision was based on the lack of harm low energy drones pose to the physical safety of airspace users and the public because of their lower mass and size (Transport Canada 2015). However, while safety is an important consideration and these low-energy drones may pose less of a threat to physical safety because of their low mass and small size, they can still have a number of payloads attached to them for data collection and surveillance purposes and therefore still pose concerns for civil liberties and privacy. What is more concerning is that during the time of these discussions on the regulatory working group, a number of Canadian drone manufacturers were specifically leasing drones in this ‘low energy’ category to policing agencies. This case shows how the technologies are regulated purely with safety concerns in mind and neglect that the size of drone is irrelevant when it comes to data collection or privacy infringement. Moreover, the actors who directly benefit from this regulation are the same actors who helped implement it, i.e., industry stakeholders. The exemption for this drone category was proposed by industry association representatives who sit on the drone working group and whose members could focus their business on drone development that would fall into the exemption category, and who would directly benefit from less burdensome regulations for their operations (Gersher 2014a). This case demonstrates the impact of power and drone technologies in both physical and regulatory space, where those involved in creating and deploying drone technologies are almost always involved in shaping the rules of their usage. This ultimately reinforces a privilege in the capital gains of particular groups over the political and social security of other groups. This case shows how the blurred lines between actors, agencies, and states perpetuate the adoption of drone technologies with very particular understandings of risk. The particular understandings of the economic, political, and social implications of adopting drones vary greatly depending upon the logics of the various actors and groups.

The stakeholders influencing the growth of drones within the domestic sphere are often the same stakeholders who have developed drones for use internationally in spaces of military engagement. Civil and commercial drones in domestic space raise concerns about safety – as often cited by regulatory agencies and industry manufacturers (Goodyear 2015) – and privacy – the focus of work by academic and civil liberties organizations (Beltran 2015; Bracken-Roche et al. 2014; Stanley and Crump 2011). However, drone stakeholders attend to questions of safety far more than they consider how drones contribute to the increasing digitization of domestic space and thus to the social and political implications of the technologies. The dichotomy between the privacy and safety of drones arises across all stakeholder groups, with each supporting their own position as to why one concern is more relevant than the other. These two concerns – privacy and safety – emerge as competing discourses of risk that permit particular voices as privileged over others in policy making, as well as voicing concerns about the technologies.

This chapter will begin by explicating Barry’s (2006) concept of technological zones as they frame the empirical and theoretical approach for this study. The ways in which these technological zones help understand the ways in which drones are transcending traditional state bounds in Canada will be discussed first. This is necessary to see the ways in which various actors and interests shape the space. The next section will discuss the shifting context of the drone from military to domestic space. Thirdly, empirical data on Canadian drone space will be linked to the three prototypes of technological zones as ways of seeing and understanding how this space transcends traditional territorial boundaries. And lastly, the final section will discuss how these technological zones feed the market of drones as surveillance technologies and the related discourses of risk that accompany the growth of the drone market from military to domestic spaces.

(De-)constructing drones: Material politics and technological zones

Material objects and technologies play a role in assemblages of governance, security, and surveillance (Walters 2014; Aradau 2010; Latour 2005; Barry 2001). These material objects and technologies often exist within spaces which are clearly defined by various norms, and not necessarily limited to traditional state boundaries. That is, they exist within spaces where ‘differences between technical practices, procedures and forms have been reduced, or common standards have been established’ (Barry 2006: 239). Drones are material objects that are shaped by social actors and spaces, and impact actors and spaces in turn. However, the extent to which certain actors are included and excluded in the making and regulating of drones results in a technological zone that does not address the concerns of certain actors, and this politics of exclusion limits agency and has impacts on sociotechnical spaces as a result of the way drones are operated. Understanding the actors, logics, and regulations that make up the technological zone around drones in Canada (Barry 2001, 2006) provides a lens to understand why some concerns and narratives about drones are stronger than others.

The grand scale adoption of domestic drones has the potential to alter sociotechnical environments based on the norms established within the technological zone, without necessarily considering concerns of other stakeholders in the domestic space (see Bracken-Roche 2016; Wall and Monahan 2011). More so, the stakeholder groups driving the deployment of drone technologies are driven by risk narratives that do not address the social implications of drones as surveillance technologies. And so this work looks at not only the way drones are being made and shaped but what it is that they produce and how they act or change spaces (see Bauchspies and Puig de la Bellacasa 2009). The idea of technological zones, ‘spaces within which differences between technical practices, procedures and forms have been reduced, or common standards have been established’ (Barry 2006: 239), is applied to drones in the Canadian domestic sphere and is exemplified in empirical detail based on fieldwork data on drone regulation in Canada. It gives a macro-level lens for understanding how these technologies shift efficiently from the international realm to the domestic realm as well as informing our understanding of how this zone transcends traditional state borders.

The popularity of drones and their proliferation in the domestic context can be explained in a number of ways. In industry they are promoted as being cost effective, allowing new vantage points of vision, and accomplishing tasks that people and other machines cannot (Jackman 2016; Bracken-Roche, field notes, March 2015 and November 2014). The concept of technological zones (Barry 2006) sheds light on the ways in which political spaces emerge around a new technology ‘within which differences between technical practices, procedures and forms have been reduced, or common standards have been established’ (239). Technological zones themselves have fairly clear borders, but they do not necessarily parallel the traditional borders of nation-states. In the first instance, technological zones can be seen as spaces that emerge around, and in response to, a new technology or material assemblage (Barry 2001). The spaces, processes, and practices that emerge around a scientific endeavour or a technology are, in Barry’s (2001) terms, known as technological zones. Feenberg (1992) further argues that contemporary, industrial society is purely shaped by political power dynamics. And sociotechnical spaces are shaped by the dominant political hegemony, and not by ‘technical decisions [that] are significantly constrained by “rationality” – either technical or economic’, (Feenberg 1992: 301). Thus, the hegemonic power of the technological zone perpetuates a form of technocratic governance within the domestic realm.

Politics has become preoccupied with technology, in that ‘[there] is a political preoccupation with the problems technology poses, with the potential benefits it promises, and with the models of social and political order it seems to make available’ (Barry 2001: 2). There is an ever increasing importance of technology in shaping relationships of governance, in shaping policy and regulation, and in the way that there are (new) actors involved in affairs that traditionally would have been solely state-run. These technological zones self-define to an extent – based on expertise – but are also determined by measures or, standards that apply to a technology or emerge around it. In this way, the Canadian technological zone around drones is reflexive in that has been shaped by particular logics and proscribed practices but it also adjusts as the technologies change and develop. Understanding technological zones as linked to a new technology helps reveal the ways in which traditional domestic and international demarcations for both stakeholders and institutions are somewhat less significant than the space that emerges around the technology itself, often based on expertise and experience of relevant individuals. Barry (2006) identifies three types of technological zones: metrological zones, infrastructural zones, and zones of qualification. Such technological zones take broadly one of three forms: (1) metrological zones associated with the development of common forms of measurement; (2) infrastructural zones associated with the creation of common connection standards; and (3) zones of qualification which come into being when objects and practices are assessed according to common standards and criteria (ibid.). An example of a metrological zone would be the development of the United States customary units system of measurements prior to their independence from the United Kingdom. Infrastructural zones refer to the common connection standards that integrate production or communication, while excluding producers or consumers who do not adopt the standard. And lastly, zones of qualification refer to objects and practices being assessed and upheld to common standards, such environmental protocols or standardization of transit safety standards.

Barry (2006, 2001) aligns the idea of technological zones with Michel Foucault’s (1995) disciplinary institutions – within which practices, bodies, and identities are controlled and determined – as spaces within which the organization of relations between various entities is determined (Barry 2006). Biopower and docility – the way in which control occurs through discourse, regulation, and routine manifest themselves in the individual and render them in particular ways – in Foucault’s sense can be seen in technological zones through the normative forces that shape relations within the space, although they are not necessarily disciplinary in nature (ibid.). As opposed to groups of actors emerging because of their role or position within the nation-state, these stakeholders emerge around a new technology because of their expertise and form various groups, policies, and organizations in order to manage this new technology. The emergence of drones in Canada, and within domestic spaces more generally, are prime examples of technological zones.

Like many cases of new technologies being introduced to the public, industry stakeholders see the way the technology will benefit consumers and the economy, and much public concern or resistance is dismissed by stakeholders as being unfounded or unreasonable (Yearly 2005). In the case of UAS (unmanned aerial systems), drone industry stakeholders believe public concerns – which have been related to privacy and civil liberties – are based on a lack of awareness and knowledge on the part of the public at large (see Bracken-Roche et al. 2014) as well as perceived media bias. This belief further limits engagement with the public as well as a dismissal of any public concerns more broadly. The introduction of UAS into the domestic realm has been facilitated by funding from government sources, and regulations have been constructed with the aid of key industry stakeholders with limited public consultation – especially in the early iterations of the drone regulations (Bracken-Roche, field notes, February 2016; Bracken-Roche et al. 2015; Gersher 2013). Therefore, the evolution of a technological zone often is the result of particular political and economic interactions, ‘and the specificities of the materials, practices, and locations which they transform, connect, exclude, and silence’ (Barry 2006: 250). The ways in which drones have transferred from a traditionally military, and international space, will be discussed in the next section.

Beyond killer drones: Drones in the domestic space

The increase in the use of drone technologies in military reconnaissance, domestic policing, and in commercial endeavours is due in large part to drone manufacturers trying to find new markets for their commodities (Bracken-Roche et al. 2014). The cross-pollination and training that has occurred between military and policing agencies in Canada has been a key factor in domestic law enforcement agencies (LEAs) taking up drones for their own purposes (Molnar and Parsons 2013). As is the case with many technologies that transfer from the ‘military industrial complex’ into domestic policing (Haggerty and Ericson 1999), drone technologies are being developed simultaneously with corresponding policies and practices. As David (1985) argues, there tends to be a small window opportunity – with a number of factors at play – in which a technological zone is open to change. The shifting use of drones from their traditional use in the military sector into the domestic realm for the provision of intelligence and security applications exists within the larger context of the political economy of the UAS industry – and the surveillance-industrial complex more broadly – not only within states, but internationally. The space of the technological zone gives a voice to particular actors over others, in the case of drones in Canada this has meant government, industry, and military stakeholders but generally excludes civil libertarians, privacy advocates and the public. Being privileged within the Canadian drone technological zone as a stakeholder with a voice again relies on one’s expertise and experience as it directly pertains to drone technology. Therefore the primary government body regulating drone technologies makes up the UAS working group with military and industry actors because of their technical expertise on drones technologies (Bracken-Roche, Interview 17, 2018).

Analyses of surveillance that permeates our daily lives often ‘examine[s] how its practice has become more widespread via technologies used in warfare being diffused into everyday usage by the capitalist enterprise’ (Ball 2002: 573). Tracking the historical development of drones and their adoption in the domestic realm shows parallels with military innovation that has occurred with other technologies. Aradau (2010) has argued that artefacts are not neutral or apolitical but that they ‘are constituted through intra-action between different material-discursive practices’ (499). Therefore, it is likely that the dispositions and logics that accompany drones originating in the military-industrial complex will transfer into their adoption in the domestic realm. This same idea is introduced with the quotation at the beginning of this chapter, where one a privacy advocate states that drones are not neutral but are innately militaristic because that is the primary context from which they’ve come. As UAS have moved beyond their military uses and spread into the domestic realm a number of civil liberties organizations, privacy commissioners, and members of government have commissioned reports and made recommendations on the key considerations necessary for legislating and regulating the use of UAS domestically (see Hayes et al. 2014; Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada 2013; Stanley and Crump 2011).

The extent to which drones permeate the public imagination and daily news-media is reflective of their expansion across numerous and multiple sociotechnical spaces but it is increasingly important to understand the social and political spaces that these technologies occupy. No longer found only in war-related contexts, the drone has moved beyond the space of international conflict but it brings with it particular de-territorializing logics (Packer and Reeves 2013). However, drones emerged from a particular historical context that influences their introduction to, and acceptance in, the domestic realm (Bracken-Roche 2016; Shaw 2016; Wall and Monahan 2011). As drones have been adopted for a variety of tasks in the domestic sphere they highlight particular narratives of militarization and surveillance, risk and security (Wall and Monahan 2011). While drone technologies and networks are linked to the state in some ways, in other ways they move beyond traditional state boundaries both in terms of their role in international conflicts (where their legal status is questioned) as well as current proliferation in the domestic sphere. This transcendence of traditional state bounds can be seen in two ways. In the military context, the use of drones overseas has not necessarily been officially acceptable or following traditional capacities. For example the legality of US-led drone warfare in Pakistan has been called into question (see Shaw and Akhter 2012). In the domestic realm, the individual actors and companies that develop and deploy drone technologies are not necessarily limited to one state and a majority tends to have military linkages, past or present, even though their operations are linked to the state in which they are operating and where regulations determine their civil operations.

Looking at the adoption and growth of UAS in the domestic realm and their emergence as surveillance technologies highlights the finding that the same agents who shape the drone market and deploy drone technologies are the same individuals who advocate for particular regulations. UAS manufacturers have proven to be key actors in shaping the UAS market and the way drone technologies are regulated, for example (this will be evident in the interview data discussed later in the chapter; also see Bracken-Roche et al. 2014; Gersher 2014a). The drone industry has worked alongside government to shift the UAS market’s focus from (or at least not solely focused on) military applications to those of intelligence gathering and security in the domestic space (Bracken-Roche et al. 2014). And while privileged stakeholders play a dominant role within the drone technological zone, publics are excluded as ‘[i]n the processes by which structuring decisions are made, different people are differently situated and possess unequal degrees of power as well as unequal levels of awareness’ (Winner 1980: 127).

Examining interoperability: Linking systems, states, and agencies

The actors and regulations that emerge around drones not only transcend traditional internal/external agency divisions within states, but also beyond states. As material objects take on agency, territorial state bounds are no longer the sole determinate of engagement, but instead facilitate the ability to engage with, and around emerging technologies shape new spaces that are instead defined by scientific and technical practices. Documents were obtained through Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests from a number of federal agencies in Canada including but not limited to Transport Canada, the Department of National Defence, and Innovation, Science, and Economic Development. Elite interviews were carried out with 30 stakeholders, and then transcribed. A grounded theory qualitative thematic analysis was the primary method for data analysis. In my approach to the thematic analysis, I conceptualized themes as patterns in the data underpinned by a central concept that organizes the analytic observations, in this case interoperability. Once all of the transcriptions were read and surveyed for preliminary themes, I noted any initial analytic observations about each interview, and then coded for these items across all of the interviews. This was all carried out using QDA Miner, data analysis software.

Following a social constructivist approach, this analysis takes technology as contingent and flexible, that is a co-construction of technology and the social and political sphere is continuously taking place. This approach is important because it highlights the need to carry out empirical research in order to ‘interrogate surveillance technologies in specific social contexts’ (Monahan 2008). Based on the thematic analysis, I focus on the theme of interoperability as it emerged in relation to drone technology, and drone regulations. During interviews with various stakeholders, themes tended to emerge across particular groups of actors. For many government actors, the focus was on regulations across agencies and to be in sync with the United States. Industry focused on the ability to use different drone hardware and software together seamlessly, which was also a concern for military and policing stakeholders who also highlighted the need for different groups to be able to deploy and operate their technologies side-by-side with ease. Of course, for civil liberties and privacy experts the concern was more focused on data protection when various groups are using drones. Overall, these themes link to integration, or interoperability.

Narratives about interoperability – or integration more broadly – and the ways in which drone technologies and regulations are shaped in order to be compatible across systems, states, and agencies came through in both interviews and document analysis. This emerged in a few different ways among those interviewed but the basic desire for those encouraging interoperability was the same: for drones and their corresponding software systems to be able to work in conjunction with one another across various organizations and spaces. The actual term interoperability was primarily used by current or former military personnel, many of whom have made the transition into the drone industry. However, other stakeholders referred to interoperability in terms of compatibility of regulations, systems, and partnerships between agencies and states. The Canadian government and military have long-standing ties with the Canadian drone industry which has resulted in a ‘mutually beneficial relationship where regulators can have technology experts involved in rule making, industry can influence regulations, and military can be involved’ in both of these arenas (Bracken-Roche, field notes, January 2016). The ongoing relationships between these various groups have been further intensified through the alignment of drone regulations and technologies. In this sense the examination of the Canadian drone space exemplifies a technological zone in perhaps two of the three ways that Barry (2006) introduces. This notion of interoperability links to infrastructural zones and zones of qualification. In terms of infrastructural zones, within Canada there is a push from various agencies within states to align their drone hardware and software systems to allow interoperability across agencies. The zone of qualification is evident in regulatory terms where Canadian regulation for drones is standardized across the country, and where there is a Canadian-US committee dedicated to regulatory harmonization of drones as part of the Beyond the Border Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) (Bracken-Roche, Interview 28, 2018).

This interagency cooperation and regulation in Canada, as well as technological compatibility between systems, has three primary features of interoperability (see Gersher 2014a). The first is that technological systems are being built to communicate with one another, and are in accordance with one another across agencies. This was noted in interviews where numerous stakeholders spoke of OPERATION GRIZZLY as a ‘pivotal point for inter-agency drone cooperation and technological alignment’ (Bracken-Roche, Interview 5, 2018). Additionally, designated Canadian personnel are able to access live video feeds of a United States (US) Predator B drone that is flying along the Canadian-US Border through a handheld device (Gersher 2014a). This highlights the increasing compatibility of technologies and information sharing across agencies and borders and speaks to the ‘System of Systems’ approached as outlined in primary documents (Gersher 2014a; A-2011-00658). This approach would entail developing drones by Canada’s military that would be interoperable and synergetic with a whole collection of sensors, technologies, and data sharing systems (ibid.). This links back to Barry’s (2006) conception of infrastructural zones even more so in that the development of the zone is path-dependent (Callon 1995) where particular inter-relations, and circumstances must emerge in order for the zone to development in the way it does. In the Canadian context, OPERATION GRIZZLY seems to play a key role, and was identified across a number of documents, and interviews as being a turning point for the development of drones in Canada. Secondly, an interoperable security system also includes the sharing of information between organizations across and within borders (Bracken-Roche 2018; Gersher 2014a). This is seen above specifically regarding access to drone video feeds and in cross-border law enforcement practices and policies where Canada and the US agencies engage in ‘bilateral information and intelligence-sharing’ (Gilbert 2012a). The last aspect of interoperability (Gersher 2014a) is the coordination of regulations and standards within and across borders, and across agencies, which demonstrates a zone of qualification in Barry’s terms. This regulatory cooperation and synchronization of standards has been demonstrated by the Canadian civil aviation agency working to streamline their domestic regulations with the US as part of the Beyond the Border Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) (Bracken-Roche, Interview 28, 2018) and with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) (attended by Canadian government and industry stakeholders), as well as with Canada’s own military (who sit on the transnational working group as well as the Transport Canada UAV Working Group) (ibid.).

These multinational projects extend to Canada’s military, who ‘work with NATO to standardize regulations to further facilitate interoperability across operations and across the national airspace of other states’ (Bracken-Roche, field notes, November 2014). It is because of these partnerships across both civil and military agencies that drone regulations, within Canada and internationally, are becoming increasingly uniform. Additionally, there has been an effort to align information sharing practices in Canada across LEAs and the military (see Abrahamson and Goodman-Delahunty 2014). This is further coupled with recent trends in facilitating Canadian-US cross border law enforcement operations which has resulted in increased information sharing as a result of various economic and security agreements including the Shiprider Agreement and the Beyond the Border action plan (Topak et al. 2015). All of these agreements try to ensure both the technological and bureaucratic alignment across agencies and borders so that data can be collected and shared more efficiently and so that integrated tasks or law enforcement operations can occur outside of their traditional boundaries without posing any jurisdictional issues (Topak et al. 2015; Gilbert 2012b).

However, the interconnectedness and interoperability of these various security and surveillance apparatuses raises concerns about privacy, accountability, autonomy/sovereignty, and the separation of powers. What is even more concerning is that issues of security and surveillance are not wholly administered by state agencies such as LEAs, the military, and relevant government departments. The technologies and apparatuses, regulations, and related data collection and sharing practices are being administered, in part, by (industry) stakeholders who have a vested economic interest in the success of these systems because they ‘have skin in the game’ (Bracken-Roche, field notes, March 2015). As discussed by Haggerty and Ericson (1999) and Hayes (2012), the result of these public-private partnerships in the realm of security and surveillance is that the logics that shape technologies in the military space are often transported into domestic space alongside the technologies themselves. In practice a number of Canadian drone companies have already benefited from these relationships whether through direct funding from government bodies for research, such as Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, or through offering turnkey services for various safety, security, and surveillance procurement contracts (Bracken-Roche, Interview 21, 2018).

When tracing the stakeholders who are involved in the various aspects of creating, regulating, and deploying drones there is a convergence of shared occupational history and expertise across government, industry, and military stakeholders moving between different fields. This revolving door (Hayes 2012) raises concerns about economic interests are prioritized over of the public good. Information that is publicly available online (such as on industry, government, and social media websites) demonstrates how many stakeholders in these three areas exhibit the revolving door at work. One individual who oversaw the Canadian military’s drone regulation development and project JUSTAS then moved to a senior role at Transport Canada in their drone civil aviation group, now works for a commercial drone company while consulting for other national and international government bodies and private companies. Another individual, the new USC Executive Director, was formerly a Transport Canada and military employee, while the latest USC Chairman formerly works at the National Research Council of Canada and Industry Canada – all of which are key organizations essential to the success of the drone industry (Bracken-Roche, field notes, April 2016). The revolving door of stakeholders perpetuates a space where interests are narrowed and where power becomes concentrated in certain groups and not others.

Civil liberties and privacy experts referred to concerns about data sharing across organizations or borders, while government spoke to the need to ensure regulations were standardized across various aerospace users within Canada as well as across borders (with the US). So while the use of the word ‘interoperability’ in and of itself was not entirely widespread, various components that make up or lead to interoperability were addressed across various groups. Industry stakeholders often expressed their desire to ensure their systems would fall into the regulations in both Canada and the US, stating:

[W]e are working in parallel on both sides of the Canadian and US border and so I manage the production and also the development work on the RND side of things. But in addition to that we have a services branch where we are ourselves a UAV operator and we offer services for different types of industries, so we take care of all the issues that might arise with local regulations. (Bracken-Roche, Interview 25, 2018)

As seen in this quotation, manufacturers focus on emerging drone regulations so that their technologies will be regulated for use in different countries. Government concerns regarding interoperability were primarily in ensuring safety across airspace on either side of the border, from the deployment of drones across and between various state agencies to the broader regulation of their use within particular spaces. In the Canadian case, the regulations were and still are far more advanced than in the US case but as the concerns over privacy increased in the US context, so did the concerns in Canada. A privacy stakeholder from government alludes to this in the following quotation:

What we were first looking at really was, in fact, the use of the technology by another country which happens to share a border with us [the US], but it was another country. Then we had to come to grips with the state the technology was in then. Then having understood what was going on we started to think about contacting Transport Canada because this is gonna be where you’re going to start to see, probably, the first complaints… (Bracken-Roche, Interview 17, 2018)

The tension that exists in relation to US drones collecting data over Canadian soil is highlighted in this quotation from a privacy stakeholder. Public opinion data (Bracken-Roche et al. 2014) has highlighted The Canadian public’s lack of support for any type of data sharing with or data collection by the US The concern over American practices, and regulations on the same processes in Canada is highlighted by this quotation, and was an issue that came up across numerous interviews. While Canadian regulations have allowed for the deployment of drones since 2008, but ‘it was only when their use in the US and related concerns with their use came to media attention in 2012’ that concerns began to increase in Canada (Bracken-Roche, field notes, November 2014).

Official regulatory cooperation around drones between Transport Canada and the Federal Aviation Authority in the US was implemented in 2011 as part of the Beyond the Border Action Plan for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness (Public Safety Canada 2012) which truly cemented a technological zone around drones in North America. As part of the Regulatory Cooperation Council, officials from each agency meet regularly and ‘share best practices and experiences, and look for opportunities for harmonization where it is practical. It’s a more official, structured programme, but we were sharing that information anyway’ (Bracken-Roche, Interview 28, 2018). It is since this time that the gap between the Canadian regulations and US regulations has narrowed, with the FAA following Canada’s example and trying to open up opportunities for the deployment of drones within their domestic airspace. This was in large part to do with lobbying from various groups who wanted to use drones for particular operations, as well as lobbying from the drone industry and military technology manufacturers who saw a huge market opportunity if the deployment of drones were to be sanctioned within US domestic airspace (Kang 2016).

The question of interoperability and the ability of drones to be deployed across agencies and across borders is a concern for all stakeholder groups, especially when the technology is in a nascent stage. Government officials want to ensure regulatory cooperation to allow their various national agencies to coordinate efforts for cross border enterprises while industry want to ensure a larger market in which to market and deploy their technologies. Privacy and civil liberties advocates question these efforts as cross border deployment of these technologies might mean that the safeguards usually in place in Canada might not exist in technologies coming from the US and being deployed in Canada.

Standardizing regulations

The standardization of drone regulations between Canada and the US is being overseen by the RCC Air Transport Working Group which includes both national aviation bodies (TC and the FAA) and other relevant stakeholders (Bracken-Roche, Interview 28, 2018). The RCC Air Transport Working Group works to integrate all aerial technologies, safely and seamlessly, across both states (ibid.; Gersher 2014b; Public Safety Canada 2011). However, the cross-border operations have been delayed as well with Transport Canada and the FAA conducting market research before realizing next steps in their joint-regulatory efforts (Transport Canada 2016). Elected officials do not have an opportunity to vote on the regulations as they are introduced and public consultation is limited to a short window of time, and most individuals would not be aware of Canada Gazette’s public consultation process anyway. Despite the lack of consultation with elected representatives or the public, this is standard practices for the regulation of new technologies in Canada. More so, it has been the case with drones that unelected government officials, military personnel and drone industry stakeholders have the sole responsibility for shaping the regulations for drones, resulting in a technocratic approach to governance that privileges particular logics and interests over others. Transport Canada draws on industry and military stakeholders because of their expertise but the payloads that are attached to a drone also require assessment and regulation by those who understand the data collection and surveillance implications of these technologies. However, privacy and civil liberties advocates have not been given a seat at the table for regulating drones, even though they understand and aim to protect society from the potentially intrusive surveillance aspects of these devices (Bracken-Roche, field notes, February 2015).

To reiterate the siloing that has occurred during the regulatory process, public consultation only occurs at the end of the process when the regulations are near completion using the Canada Gazette website. This attempt at inclusion and transparency is simply a political strategy for gaining public support without having to change any existing regulations, this is not dissimilar to Barry’s ideas around transparency as a technique of governmentality (2013). While transparency is seen as a ‘device intended to articulate actions’ (Barry 2013: 60) it often contributes to disputes where new activities or information are made public and demonstrate how work has been siloed. When the latest phase of regulations is announced, the TC Working Group will have been assessing the legislation for around fifteen years, while public engagement and consultation typically lasts one month per round of regulations. This lack of consultation seems purposely limited so as to reduce public engagement but this speaks to the exclusionary logics that exist within such technopolitical spaces.

The tracing of the regulatory processes for drones reveals how and why particular stakeholder groups are privileged in their involvement while other groups are excluded from shaping policies that have real consequences in Canada’s sociotechnical space. The reasons for excluding other groups is said to be for reasons of expertise, and many of these other groups would say this is valid to the extent that they do not know the intricacies of Canadian aviation regulations or civil aviation operations (Bracken-Roche, Interview 17, 2018). However, these groups do understand the implications of these technologies and their various payloads in terms of privacy and surveillance. TC argues that safety is all they can address under their mandate, but ostensibly privacy threats and surveillance concerns can manifest as safety issues. The prioritization of economic interests over the public good is exemplified in regulation building that lacks larger democratic input, especially when those creating the regulations have a vested interest in their deployment, as with most stakeholders engaged in the revolving door. As seen in the case mentioned in the introduction, there is a drive to create less restrictive regulations on the part of industry.


The shift from drone use in the military context to their use in the domestic realm has a particular history, and drone technologies are in many ways constrained and guided by their origins. Perhaps it is the association with killer drones in the Middle East and elsewhere that individuals recall when they think of surveillance drones (Bracken-Roche et al. 2014), or perhaps is it because more population groups have felt subject to increasingly pervasive surveillance in the post 9/11 era (Monahan 2012). This research has demonstrated that technocratic governance is a feature of technological zones, and is exemplified in Canada’s drone space. Power relations and representation of particular economic and political interests result in the regulatory space developing in a particular way, highlighting how a zone of qualification emerges for drone technologies within Canada and across the border with the US (Barry 2006). Those who take up positions of power in organizations shaping the technological zone control the concerns and the conversation to the exclusion of those who do not possess the right capital or expertise to engage in governance. However, many refute (Feenberg 1992, 2004; Winner 1980) rationality and expertise as valid reasons for excluding publics and secondary actors from the technological zone governing drones. What is concerning in the context of the (potential) widespread adoption of (interoperable) drones is that they are being regulated with almost no consideration for their sensory capabilities, and that the technological zone is being pushed forward by (government, industry, and military) actors who have a vested interest in economic growth. The privacy and security implications are a last consideration despite the data collection and sharing capabilities offered by drones.

This chapter has assessed the relationships that have been forged around the development and regulation of drone technologies in Canada drawing primarily from the interview data and primary documents to highlight how we see the emergence of a technological zone. The specific focus on the interoperability of drone technologies and regulations across agencies and across state boundaries exemplifies infrastructural zones and zones of qualification. The findings in this chapter are important because they reveal the way that drones and drone regulations are developed in ways that accommodate inter-agency and inter-state cooperation. This further demonstrates the impact of technologies in social and political spaces where new political circumstances come about specifically in response to drones, in this case. The actors and regulations that emerge around drone technologies not only transcend traditional internal/external agency divisions within states, but also go beyond states. The technological zone that encompasses drone integration in Canada highlights a form of technocratic governance where expertise and economic interests shape the space.

The regulation of drones by Transport Canada demonstrates how, and possibly why, public-private partnerships might benefit from a particular type of expertise and logic. However, this is at the great expense of other equally important social and political concerns that the key stakeholders cannot address or understand. As drones become a familiar sight in Canada, it is increasingly uncertain how inappropriate designs and uses of drones by various individuals and organizations will be curbed. More so, as drones become capable of capturing and collecting more data, inappropriate data collection and storage are of increasing concern and as seen in the above assessment of regulation, these capabilities of drones are not sufficiently addressed. The question asked by those concerned with privacy and civil liberties is how to engage in forward looking, safety and privacy sensitive, regulation in order to prevent unrestricted surveillance. Transport Canada’s Working Group attends to only one part of the regulations: safety. Physical safety is important in the context of flying machines technologies, but privacy and civil liberties concerns are equally important due to the data collection capabilities of drone payloads. And so even if it would be impossible to open up regulatory oversight more directly to elected officials and the public, the presence of privacy and civil liberties advocates would ensure a more balanced approach to understanding and regulating drones in our sociotechnical space.

Despite the current trend around drones in Canada, the oversight and regulation of these technologies is not just a technical issue for aviation and engineering experts. It is a social and political issue that calls for a broader spectrum of stakeholders who can adequately assess all aspects and implications of drone deployment. The social processes that govern these relations are passed off as rational, bureaucratic processes but are instead shaped by the logics of stakeholder groups whose status allows access to the technological zone of drones. And thus, instead of a democratic and transparent regulatory process, power asymmetries are further concentrated.


Abrahamson, D. E., and Goodman-Delahunty, J. (2014). Impediments to Information and Knowledge Sharing Within Policing: A Study of Three Canadian Policing Organizations. Sage Open: 1–17.

Adroit Market Research (2019). <https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2019/05/10/1821560/0/en/Drones-Market-will-grow-at-a-CAGR-of-40-7-to-hit-144-38-Billion-by-2025-Analysis-by-Trends-Size-Share-Growth-Drivers-and-Business-Opportunities-Adroit-Market-Research.html>.

Aradau, C. (2010). Security That Matters: Critical Infrastructure and Objects of Protection. Security Dialogue 41(5): 491–514.

Ball, K. (2002). Elements of Surveillance: A New Framework and Future Directions. Information, Communication & Society 5(4): 573–590.

Barry, A. (2001). Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society. London: Athlone Press.

—— (2006). Technological Zones. European Journal of Social Theory 9(2): 239–253.

—— (2013). Material Politics: Disputes along the Pipeline. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bauchspies, W. K., and Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2009). Re-Tooling Subjectivities: Exploring the Possible with Feminist Science and Technology Studies. Subjectivity 28(1): 227–28.

Beltran, D. (2015). The Privacy Commissioner of Canada Comments on Proposed UAV Regulation. CyberLex: Insights on Cybersecurity, Privacy and Data Protection Law, 3 November. <https://www.canadiancybersecuritylaw.com/2015/11/the-privacy-commissioner-of-canada-comments-on-proposed-uav-regulation/>.

Bracken-Roche, C. (2016). Domestic Drones: The Politics of Verticality and the Surveillance Industrial Complex. Geographica Helvetica 70: 285–293.

Bracken-Roche, C., Lyon, D., Mansour, M., et al. (2014). Privacy Implications of the Spread of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Canada. Surveillance Studies Centre. Research project for the 2013–2014 Contributions Program of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Ottawa, April 30.

David, P. (1985). Clio and the Economics of QWERTY. American Economic Review 75(2): 332–7.

Department of National Defense Canada. (2011). A-2011-00658.

Feenberg, A. (1992). Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Democracy. Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 35(3–4): 301–322.

—— (2004). Critical Theory of Technology. https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/books/Critical_Theory_Technology.pdf [accessed 22 August 2016].

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

—— (2003). Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975–76. New York: Picador.

Gersher, S. (2013). Canada’s Domestic Regulatory Framework for RPAS: A call for public deliberation. Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems 2(1):1–4.

—— (2014a). Drone Surveillance is Increasing in Canada. Ottawa Citizen, April 10. <http://ottawacitizen.com/news/drone-surveillance-is-increasing-in-canada>.

—— (2014b). Eyes in the Sky: The Domestic Deployment of Drone Technology and Aerial Surveillance in Canada. Master’s thesis, Carleton University, 2014.

Gilbert, E. (2012a). Harper’s Border Deal Expands the National Security State. Rabble, 1 February. <http://rabble.ca/news/2012/02/harpers-border-deal-expands-national-security-state>.

—— (2012b). The Canada-US Border Deal. Perspectives, Fall. <https://www.uc.utoronto.ca/magazine/canada-us-border-deal>.

Goodyear, S. (2015). Drones Get More Popular, and the Rules Are Getting Stricter. CBC News, 9 November. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/canada-u-s-drones-rules-1.3280065>.

Graham, S. (2013). Foucault’s Boomerang: The New Military Urbanism. Open Democracy, 14 February. <https://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/stephen-graham/foucault%E2%80%99s-boomerang-new-military-urbanism>.

Haggerty, K., and Ericson, R. V. (1999). The Militarization of Policing in the Information Age. Journal of Political and Military Sociology 27(2): 233–255.

Hayes, B. (2012). The Surveillance-Industrial Complex. In D. Lyon, K. Ball and K. D. Haggerty (Eds), Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 167–175.

Hayes, B., Jones, C., and Töpfer, E. (2014). Eurodrones Inc. Report for the Transnational Institute and Statewatch, February. <http://www.statewatch.org/news/2014/feb/sw-tni-eurodrones-inc-feb-2014.pdf>.

Jensen, O. B. (2016). Drone City: Power, Design and Aerial Mobility in the Age of Smart Cities. Geographica Helvetica 71(2): 67–75.

Jumbert, M.G. and Sandvik, K.B. (2017). Introduction: What does it take to be good?, in Sandvik, K.B., Jumbert, M.G. (eds) The good drone, London, New York: Routledge,1–25.

Kang, C. (2016). F.A.A Introduces Commercial Drone Rules. New York Times, 22 June. <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/22/technology/drone-rules-commercial-use-faa.html>.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

—— (1999). On Recalling ANT. In Law and Hassards (Eds), Actor Network Theory and After. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, pp. 15–26.

—— (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Molnar, A., and Parsons, C. (2013). Watching Below: Dimensions of Surveillance‐by UAVs in Canada. Block G Privacy and Security Report (November).

Monahan, T. (2012). Surveillance and Terrorism. In D. Lyon, K. Ball, K. D. Haggerty (Eds), Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies. London; New York: Routledge, pp. 285–291.

Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) (2013). Drones in Canada. OPC. Last modified 21 November 2013. <https://www.priv.gc.ca/en/opc-actions-and-decisions/research/explore-privacy-research/2013/drones_201303/>.

Packer, J., and Reeves, J. (2013). Romancing the Drone: Military Desire and Anthropophobia from SAGE to Swarm. Canadian Journal of Communication 38(3): 309–332.

Pugliese, J. (2015). Drones. In M. B. Salter (Ed.), Making Things International: Circuits and Motion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 222–240.

Public Safety Canada. (2011). Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness. Public Safety Canada. Last modified 18 September 2017. <https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/brdr-strtgs/bynd-th-brdr/index-en.aspx>.

—— (2012). Beyond the Border Implementation Report. Public Safety Canada, 14 December. <https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/archive-2012-bynd-brdr-mplmntn/archive-index-en.aspx#Integrated>.

Shaw, I. G. R. (2016). The Urbanization of Drone Warfare: Policing Surplus Populations in the Dronepolis. Geographica Helvetica 71(1): 19–28.

Shaw, I. G. R., and Akhter, M. (2012). The Unbearable Humanness of Drone Warfare In FATA, Pakistan. Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 44(4): 1490–150.

Stanley, J., and Crump, C. (2011). Protecting Privacy from Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft. American Civil Liberties Union, December. <https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/protectingprivacyfromaerialsurveillance.pdf>

Topak, Ö. E., Bracken-Roche, C., Saulnier, A., and Lyon, D. (2015). From Smart Borders to Perimeter Security: The Expansion of Digital Surveillance at the Canadian Borders. Geopolitics 20(4): 880–99.

Transport Canada. (2017). Transport Canada 2017–2018 Departmental Plan. Transport Canada. Last modified 10 July 2019. <https://tc.canada.ca/en/transport-canada-2017-2018-departmental-plan>.

—— (2016). Guidance Material for Operating Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems Under an Exemption. Advisory Circular (AC) No. 600-004, 22 December. <https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/civilaviation/opssvs/ac-600-004-2136.html>.

Wall, T., and Monahan, T. (2011). Surveillance and Violence from Afar: The Politics of Drones and Liminal Security-Scapes. Theoretical Criminology 15(3): 239–254.

Walters, W. (2014). Drone Strikes, Dingpolitik and Beyond: Furthering the Debate on Materiality and Security. Security Dialogue (2): 101–118.

Winner, L. (1980). Do Artefacts Have Politics? Daedalus 109(1): 121–136.

Yearley, S. (2005). Making Sense of Science: Understanding the Social Study of Science. London; Thousand Oaks; New Delhi: Sage Publications.