There’s an all-too infrequently unquestioned assumption in a lot of popular and academic writing about surveillance, that surveillance just spreads and intensifies and that new surveillance technologies proceed in a teleological manner to fulfill their designed purpose. Sure, we have all read the science and technology studies literature and pay lip service to ideas of technological failure and we all keep searching for ‘resistance’ or even just ‘politics’, but even if, like me, we talk deliberately talk about ‘sociotechnical trajectories’ without trying to assign one possible direction to these trajectories, we very rarely make the retreat, diminution and easing off of surveillance the central focus of our work or our writing.
Drones have been the latest demonstration of this. Practically all my blog entries on the subject over the last few years have been telling a story of the seemingly unstoppable spread of drones from particular military applications to widespread military use, to civilian policing and thence to other government and private uses. So it is really instructive to see the introduction of drone surveillance stopped in its apparent tracks twice in one week. This is exactly what has happened in Seattle, Washington, and Charlottesville, Virginia this week. The Seattle Police Department had intended to implement a strategy of drone surveillance and had purchased two Micro-UAVs (MAVs). But rather than these following the CCTV route of government promotion and general public apathy or support bolstered the usual police surveys showing how ‘effective’ the new technology has been, instead, following massive public concern over privacy, Mayor Mike McGinn this week returned the two drones to the manufacturer and put a stop to any further development. He stopped short of introducing any ordinance banning drones, as Charlottesville did in the same week with a resolution pledging that the city would not purchase any such technology and calling on the state legislature to introduce an outright ban.
However in many ways the Seattle decision might be more influential as it is a far larger metropolis and this could resonate in major cities across North America – and beyond, given that Seattle is an aspiring global city too. But how influential? We will have to see. Certainly the UAV manufacturers and police associations will try to fight back with renewed PR and sales pitches – I am fully expecting lots of ‘drone success stories’ in the media in the next few weeks and months as a result. But what these two decisions should do is remind us all that the domestic politics of drones is still open, the future is unwritten and there are many possible trajectories – which we should emphasize more than we do.