A look at airborne spycraft and how, “someday, most major developed cities…will live under the unblinking gaze of some form of wide-area surveillance.”
Drone surveillance unsettles civil liberties advocates, but they will have much more to discuss regarding an eye in the sky that observes everyone all the time. That all-seeing entity is the subject of this disturbing account from Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. The military mostly employs drones for observation, but their cameras are helpless against improvised explosive devices planted along roads. Dealing with IEDs requires 24-hour surveillance of huge areas. Suspicious actors can be followed. Once an IED explodes, one simply rewinds the tape, watches insurgents plant the bomb, and then retraces their steps to the base of operation. Cameras with this ability require immense computer power and expensive technical backup, but diligent research has produced several systems now deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The cameras remain a work in progress. The author excels in explaining their bumpy development but reveals little about their effectiveness on the battlefield; this is classified information, so spokesmen provide only vague, optimistic details. What Michel makes vividly clear is that civilian authorities yearn for this technology, and entrepreneurs supplying the military are anxious to branch out. The FBI and many police departments are flying prototypes, which have sometimes proved successful in tracing criminal activities. Is this a preliminary to the all-seeing eye of Nineteen Eighty-Four? “To be sure,” writes the author, “aerial surveillance can certainly be used for purposes we can all agree upon….But there is a very real line beyond which the all-seeing eye becomes a dragnet that is incompatible with the tenets of civil liberty.” So far, public opposition has quashed local efforts at permanent surveillance, but this will change as accuracy improves and law-and-order advocates extol the benefits. Michel concludes with a review of legal safeguards that, in a perfect world, will accompany these programs.
A skilled, mildly alarmist overview of another dazzling if intrusive technology.