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.
Anyone interested in the subject should watch this program from PBS’s Nova strand. It features all kinds of interesting footage including swarming micro-UAVs and the massively high resolution DARPA-developed Argus system…
According to the police themselves, they will limit the use of the drones to “accident reconstruction, search-and-rescue operations, major crime scenes and situations involving emergency response teams”, however as the article also notes, they don’t actually have a formal policy on the use of UAVs, and as with other controversial purchases by Canadian police, for example the LRAD accoustic weapons in Toronto and Vancouver, this highlights how little oversight there is of what technologies police can purchase.
My first post of 2012 – and, yes, my New’s Year’s Resolution is to blog regularly again – is not about a new subject. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones, are already on their way to being a standard tool of national security and increasingly of policing too. However, given decreasing price of small Micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (MAVs), it was also inevitable that NGOs, activist and citizen groups and even individuals, would soon start to operate them as a form of sousveillance or counter-surveillance, or simply as surveillance.
Some Occupy protestors in Europe and the USA had already made use of commercially available MAVs to broadcast footage of protest. And, the BBC reports today that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the radical direct action anti-whaling group, will this year use an Osprey drone aircraft to monitor Japanese whaling fleets operating in the southern oceans. Sea Shepherd has always been technically adventurous (and PR savvy), operating radar-invisible speedboats and even a submarine in the past.
But it all suggests that drones have made the leap from military to policing to civil use with remarkable speed, and I suggest that in 2012 we will see the proliferation of MAVs operated by non-government users. Let’s just see how fast governments now try to outlaw drones in response…
Police in Manchester, UK, have axed a tethered surveillance balloon that cost them 80,000 GBP (around $130,000 US). The supposedly covert balloon – if a large white blimp with ‘POLICE’ written on the side in big blue letters can be called ‘covert’ – had been intended to be used for monitoring of public order at large-scale events. However it was a victim of a more conventional Manchester problem – bad weather. Apparently it did not function very well in wet and windy weather. One would have thought that this might have occurred to the police of a notoriously wet and windy town…
This might seem like a victory for anti-surveillance forces, but of course, this will only increase the pressure for more versatile and weather-proof aerial surveillance, i.e. the micro-UAVs (or camera drones) that several other forces have already purchased, not to mention the more expensive powered high-level surveillance airships of the kind specified in the secret South-Coast Partnership report on drone surveillance.