John Whitehead's Commentary
The Empire Strikes Back: Attack of the Drones
“The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.”—James Madison
Drones—unmanned aerial vehicles—come in all shapes and sizes, from nano-sized drones as small as a grain of sand that can do everything from conducting surveillance to detonating explosive charges, to massive “hunter/killer” Predator warships that unleash firepower from on high. Once used exclusively by the military to carry out aerial surveillance and attacks on enemy insurgents abroad, these remotely piloted, semi-autonomous robots have now been authorized by Congress and President Obama for widespread use in American airspace. The military empire is coming home to roost.
While there are at least 63 active drone sites around the U.S., the Obama administration is calling for drone technology to be integrated into the national air space by 2015. By 2020, just eight short years from now, it is estimated that at least 30,000 of these drones will be crisscrossing the nation’s skies, serving a wide range of functions, both public and private, governmental and corporate. The end result, however, will be the same: we will find ourselves operating under a new paradigm marked by round-the-clock surveillance and with little hope of real privacy, a paradigm foisted upon us and from which there will be no escape, short of living in a cave, far removed from the reach of modern technology. Caves, by the way, are rather scarce.
While the legislative vehicle for this rapid transition into a surveillance state came in the guise of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama in February 2012, it was steamrollered into place after intense corporate lobbying by drone makers and potential customers hoping to capitalize on the $12 - 30 billion per year industry.
As with every egregious government policy, there are politicians who stand to make money off the implementation of drones in America. Fifty-three members of the House of Representatives are part of the drone caucus which works to expand the use of drones domestically. So far this election season, 15 members of the caucus have received a total of $68,500 from General Atomics PAC, the political action committee of the drone manufacturer General Atomics. There is also a lobbying group with 507 corporate members spread across 55 countries, the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International, which is responsible for the language in the FAA bill which mandates the accelerated implementation of drone technology. Thus, our so-called representatives and the corporations which support them will make a great deal of money off of the decimation of Americans’ privacy rights.
While the threat these drones pose to privacy is unprecedented, they are being unleashed on the American populace before any real protocols to protect our privacy rights have been put in place and in such a way as to completely alter the landscape of our lives and our freedoms. We are truly entering a new era. Once the realm of science fiction and dystopian literature, the all-seeing surveillance state, powered by the latest and greatest in robot technology, is the reality with which we must now contend.
Drones are outfitted with infrared cameras and radar which will pierce through the darkness, allowing the police to keep track of anyone walking around, regardless of the nature of their business. Police drones are equipped with thermal imaging devices to see through walls. There is absolutely nowhere to hide from these machines—even in your home.
As Congressmen Edward Markey and Joe Barton pointed out in a recent letter to the FAA:
[S]tate and local governments, businesses, and private individuals are increasingly using unmanned aircraft in the U.S., including deployments for law enforcement operations. As technology advances and cost decreases—drones are already orders of magnitude less expensive to purchase and operate than piloted aircraft—the market for federal, state, and local government and commercial drones rapidly grows.
Many drones are designed to carry surveillance equipment, including video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar, and wireless network “sniffers.” The surveillance power of drones is amplified when the information from onboard sensors is used in conjunction with facial recognition, behavior analysis, license plate recognition, or any other system that can identify and track individuals as they go about their daily lives.
While drones will undoubtedly be put to a host of legitimate uses, such as helping to spot wildfires, monitoring illegal border crossings, and carrying out search-and-rescue missions, their “beneficence” is a double-edged sword. Indeed, in the name of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, law enforcement agencies will find a whole host of clever and innovative ways to use drones to invade our daily lives, not the least of which will be traffic enforcement and crowd control.
In fact, the drones will be outfitted with crowd control weapons. Vanguard Defense Industries has confirmed that its Shadowhawk drone, which is already being sold to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, will be outfitted with lethal weapons, including a grenade launcher or a shotgun, and weapons of compliance, such as tear gas and rubber buckshot. Such aerial police weapons send a clear and chilling message to those attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights by taking to the streets and protesting government policies—the message: stay home.
American scientists have created blueprints for nuclear powered drones which would increase air time from days to months. Potential problems are dire, such as a crashed drone becoming a dirty bomb or a source of nuclear propulsion for any terrorist groups that get their hands on it. However, while the lethal capabilities of these drones are troubling, especially when one factors in the possibility of them getting into the wrong hands or malfunctioning, the more pressing concern has to do with the drones’ surveillance capabilities. With the help of nanotechnology, scientists have been able to create ever-smaller drones that mimic the behavior of birds and insects and are almost undetectable. Despite their diminutive size, these drones are capable of capturing and relaying vast amounts of data and high-definition video footage. It’s inevitable that as more local police agencies acquire these spy flies, their surveillance efforts will expand to include not only those suspected of criminal activity but anyone within range of the cameras. In such a surveillance state, we shall all be treated as suspects.
There are many constitutional concerns presented by drones recording Americans’ daily activities, with the most obvious being what it means for the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents. While it will certainly give rise to a whole new dialogue about where to draw the line when it comes to the government’s ability to monitor one’s public versus private lives, the courts have been notorious for their inability to keep pace with rapid advances in technology and its impact on our freedoms.
Unfortunately, it is too late to do anything about drones coming home to roost. Indeed, as drone technology expert Peter W. Singer recognizes in remarks to the New York Times, “the debate over drones is like debating the merits of computers in 1979: They are here to stay, and the boom has barely begun. ‘We are at the Wright Brothers Flier stage of this,’ he said.” The point is that with 56 government agencies now authorized to use drones, including 22 law enforcement agencies and 24 universities, the drones are not going away. Included among the institutions authorized to fly drones are police departments in Arkansas, Utah and Florida as well as Virginia Tech and the University of North Dakota. The University of North Dakota even has a degree program in unmanned vehicle flight with 78 majors.
As with just about every freedom-leeching, technology-driven government policy inflicted on us by Congress and the White House in recent years, from whole-body scanners in airports to RFID chips in our passports and drivers licenses, the mass introduction of drones into domestic airspace has one main goal: to empower the corporate state by controlling the populace and enriching the military industrial complex. In the meantime, all you can do is keep your eyes on the skies. As Singer noted, “There’s no stopping this technology. Anybody who thinks they can put this genie back in the box—that’s silliness.”