Sunday, January 23, 2011

Drone technology and "the social norm"

Whenever the US deploys new technology abroad, against foreign populations, you can be sure it will eventually (sometimes very soon) be adopted for domestic uses. The latest such technology is the drone. The CIA has been using drone technology in Pakistan to do the work of a death squad by remote control. (Death squads, of course, are evil entities, and so it's probably controversial to note that extrajudicial assassinations of persons are what death squads do.) Constantly and scandalously the CIA's drones have killed bystanders there, thus inciting public outrage and the outing and recall of the CIA's chief of station in Pakistan (to prevent his being hauled into a court of law on charges of murder, since he was present in Pakistan on a business rather than a diplomatic visa). We can easily imagine the scenario: the operative seated comfortably in an ergonomic chair at a console in the embassy, perhaps munching a snack or sipping a cup of coffee, killing real people with the ease of someone playing a video game, all the muss and fuss safely distanced and the resulting adrenalin surge utterly guilt-free, even when small children are their victims.

That is in Pakistan. (And Iraq and Afghanistan. And maybe even other places, for all we know, since the US is conducting military operations in dozens of countries abroad.) But now, if you live in the US, the drone will likely be coming in all sizes and shapes and purposes, to a city near you. So far the uses being proposed are that of surveillance, but we all know where taking that road typically ends. If US law enforcement can do something with the equipment they're given, they will.

Here's the Washington Post's Peter Finn:

For now, the use of drones for high-risk operations is exceedingly rare. The Federal Aviation Administration - which controls the national airspace - requires the few police departments with drones to seek emergency authorization if they want to deploy one in an actual operation. Because of concerns about safety, it only occasionally grants permission.

But by 2013, the FAA expects to have formulated new rules that would allow police across the country to routinely fly lightweight, unarmed drones up to 400 feet above the ground - high enough for them to be largely invisible eyes in the sky.

Such technology could allow police to record the activities of the public below with high-resolution, infrared and thermal-imaging cameras.

One manufacturer already advertises one of its small systems as ideal for "urban monitoring." The military, often a first user of technologies that migrate to civilian life, is about to deploy a system in Afghanistan that will be able to scan an area the size of a small town. And the most sophisticated robotics use artificial intelligence to seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity.

But when drones come to perch in numbers over American communities, they will drive fresh debates about the boundaries of privacy. The sheer power of some of the cameras that can be mounted on them is likely to bring fresh search-and-seizure cases before the courts, and concern about the technology's potential misuse could unsettle the public.

And the best thing about this, for police departments? It's relatively cheap. As Finn notes, the real question is whether citizens will stand for it:
Still, Joseph J. Vacek, a professor in the Aviation Department at the University of North Dakota who has studied the potential use of drones in law enforcement, said the main objections to the use of domestic drones will probably have little to do with the Constitution.

"Where I see the challenge is the social norm," Vacek said. "Most people are not okay with constant watching. That hover-and-stare capability used to its maximum potential will probably ruffle a lot of civic feathers."

The article notes that there was apparently a revolt in Houston in 2007 against a pilot program for using drones. (Finn couldn't discover the reason for the program's being "aborted," but suspects it had to do with traffic tickets.) My guess is that most people will stand for it. The post 9/11 routine is well established. Some prominent politician receiving campaign funds from a company that makes drone technology will loudly and repreatedly claim that domestic use of the technology will make everyone safer, and then no elected official anywhere will be willing to oppose it. (That's how the boondoggle of the body scanner became standard TSA technology.) After all, for ten years we've been putting up with the security theater we all sacrifice our dignity to at airports, though it's degrading and is purely cosmetic. The politicians know it-- and also know they can't advocate dispensing with any particular component of it, no matter how absurd and ineffective it can be shown to be. As for the "social norm": no one seems to mind that citizens who videotape the police making arrests in public places (particularly when police misconduct is involved) are likely to go to jail for doing so. (Naturally the police can videotape anything they like.)

So tell me. Are we living in a police state yet?


Josh said...

When an academostar who worked with Edward Said and is on the editorial board of Radical Teachercannot conceive of mistrusting the State's claim that we need scanners and patdowns, yeah police state +8.

Rebecca said...

I'm glad I'm not in the US anymore. On my last trip in and out, I noticed that the naked scanner seems to be used selectively.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Josh, that's an amazing article you linked to. And the author completely missed my pov. I'm not overly modest (I used to skinny dip) and I don't give a damn if someone is looking at naked scans of me; I just hate being treated like a criminal just because I want to travel. Those new scanners made me feel like a criminal -- a pat down would increase that feeling by a magnitude of about 100, I suspect. I saw less security to get into a prison when I did some criminal defense work.

BTW, I believe that they are using, or planning to use (I can't keep up with all the things that ought to make me angry because it's just too much stress in an already stressful life), the drones along the Mexican border to watch for illegal crossings. So far I gather they're not going to shoot anybody, but it's not hard to imagine some kind of deal between the U.S. and Mexico to target the drug cartels, especially given the combination of the real problem of drug cartel violence in Mexico and the incredible hype about it on this side of the border. I hope that's just a good plot for a story I might write, but ...

Timmi Duchamp said...

I think, Nancy, that you've put your finger on what the essence of a police state is: viz., all the people who live within its jurisdiction are to be considered criminals until they prove that they are not. But of course negative proof is never enough, so they're put in the position of repeatedly having to prove that they are not a threat, not dissidents, not troublemakers, not really criminals. The body scanners, the demand, everywhere, for state-issued proof of identification, the pat-downs, the secret wiretaps, the reading of our email, the ability to creep into our houses and bug our computers without our knowledge... Now that I think of it, there don't seem to be many legal differences left between paroled felons and ordinary civilians anymore.(Makes me wonder if that might be part of the reason why so many people are so fierce about owning and carrying guns-- to preserve a distinction that's been fading year by year.)

Josh said...

And there's the ever-expanding definition of "criminal." My mother got confused by having to fill out a few forms in order to buy sudafed: "They said people use it to make meta-feta-mines." Thirty-five years ago, you could get a shot of morphine if you went to the ER with debilitating pain: now the default assumption is that you're a miscreant if you claim to need drugs.

Kristin said...

Scary stuff.

Also scary is the meme I've seen - people saying "nobody expects privacy any more. . ."