Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are one of the fastest-developing areas of surveillance technology. A new plan revealed by the US Department of Defense combines old and new tech with a plan, first revealed by the Los Angeles Times, for an pilotless surveillance airship called ISIS (Integrated Sensor Is the Structure) that will fly right at 65,000 feet (about 20km) high, right at the edge of ‘airspace’. The point of the airship is to provide the kind of constant watch that a geostationary satellite provides, but at a much lower level so that for more detailed pictures of the precise movements of vehicles, objects and people could be observed.
Well, as usual, the reports only seem to to be concerned about how great this would be for US military tactics, and are not interested in the law, politics and ethics of such devices. For example, I am sure there will be arguments about the violation of airspace, which will not be trivial as the ongoing diplomatic and increasingly military row over US surveillance vessels off China is showing. And of course there are issues around the violation of human rights by such intrusive technology: international violations are very hard to deal with, however. And this will only be the beginning. The new Obama administration has promised more investment in intelligence and surveillance and less in warfighting. That sounds good in some ways, but of course just poses new problems and new issues for those of us concerned with ongoing US attempts to cover the whole world with surveillance for the benefit of its strategic aims.