Drone Surveillance and the American Sci-Fi Romance [Part 1 of 2]

This is part one of a two-part post on domestic drone surveillance and its relevance to US drone strikes abroad.

Since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) first estimated that US airspace would be home to 30,000 drones by the end of the decade, American opposition to the use of drones for domestic surveillance has blossomed at an astonishing rate within the public sphere. To date, this ongoing debate has materialized into legislative activity in 21 states restricting the use of drones, generally by calling for the provision of a probable cause warrant prior to its deployment. Catherine Crump and Jay Stanley have gone so far as to suggest the emergence of a “genuine national movement against the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement,” noting that opposition to drones within US airspace is even a point of bipartisan consensus.

An article from the Times dated a week ago observes

Although surveillance technologies have become ubiquitous in American life. . . drones have evoked unusual discomfort in the public consciousness.

“To me, it’s Big Brother in the sky,” said Dave Norris, a city councilman in Charlottesville, Va., which this month became the first city in the country to restrict the use of drones. “I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial about it, but these drones are coming, and we need to put some safeguards in place so they are not abused.”

An obvious indication of how strong this public sentiment towards domestic drone use is comes from the drone industry itself – who, as of last May, commissioned one of its lobby groups to launch a counter-campaign to challenge this Big Brother narrative. This task fell upon the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), whose president Michael Toscano remarked at the time

We have so many more technologies that are eroding our ideas of privacy. If you have a cellphone and it’s on, somebody can follow you. If you send an email, somebody can read that email. The threat of unmanned vehicles is no different than that of helicopters…

Toscano’s point is clear, although somewhat disingenuous. While the privacy of American citizens continues to suffer an unprecedented onslaught of post-9/11 violations, adding drones to this growing matrix of state surveillance is not at all justifiable on the basis of ‘it’s already happening’.

To be sure, surveillance of American citizens is certainly not something new. Obama recently reauthorized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – which allows for the warrant-less wiretapping of phone calls and monitoring of emails by the NSA – for another five years. Even the most modest amendments to the act, allowing for some degree of transparency and accountability, were shot down in the Senate. And in this shocking expose of the NSA’s surveillance program “Stellar Wind,” 32-year veteran of the NSA turned-whistle-blower William Binney describes how the agency is building a map of all of an individual’s attributes by collecting every available piece of electronic data – including bank statements, travel and social media records. Binney opines that the $2B facility the NSA has been building in Bluffdale, Utah has the capacity to hold “100 years worth of the world’s electronic communications,” and this is surveillance that is far more invasive than what a drone could provide at this point. And while the ACLU rightly remarks that drones equipped with technology like the ARGUS pod – a camera with 900x the megapixels of your average smartphone camera – have the capacity to track the location of individuals, this is nothing that the state can’t do with existing technologies (and funding from Wall Street, as Pam Martens details in this report on the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative).

So why all this fuss about drones?

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One thought on “Drone Surveillance and the American Sci-Fi Romance [Part 1 of 2]

  1. Pingback: Bloomberg: Drone Surveillance and The End of Privacy Is Inevitable | The Drone Fallacy

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