Monday, December 3, 2012

Drones: Coming Soon to a Sky Near You?

Thanks to the ACLU, residents of Alameda County now know that their Sheriff’s Office has been working under the radar to bring unmanned drones to the skies above our communities. 

It seems that the Sheriff’s office originally assured the Alameda County Board of Supervisors that they wanted the drones for “search and rescue” operations.  However, the ACLU has disclosed that internal memos document the Sheriff’s interest in using drones for “intelligence gathering”, monitoring “suspicious persons”, and “large crowd control disturbances”. 

I can just imagine how the already dystopian spectacle which has played out on Berkeley’s campus in years past—with peaceful protesters confronting helmeted, shield-bearing, baton-armed policemen who look like something out of Huxley’s Brave New World, helicopters whirring overhead—would be enhanced by the additional knowledge that these unmanned aerial vehicles are monitoring a frustrated campus community!

The very same class of vehicle, that is, which has become the centrepiece of our President’s War of Terror in a half dozen countries around the world.  The instrument which has been used in these contexts to spy on people and then kill them, to overthrow governments, to pummel infrastructure, to destroy homes, to obliterate beyond recognition people who are somewhere along the spectrum between an inconvenience and a threat in the eyes of our government.

The use of these weapons of war has, moreover, been calculated to evade oversight, to dodge responsibility, and to obscure the public gaze.  The President favours their use because they allow him to elude public scrutiny.  The manner in which the Sheriff’s office in Alameda County has been trying to gain use of this tool—by burying it at the bottom of an agenda and lying about how they plan to use it—does not bode well for their use of drones, and should confound the public.

Of course we would not, at the outset or perhaps ever, be seeing Predator Drones flying over Oakland and Berkeley.  But technology is always, at some level, imprisoned by the context from which it arises.  And as the San Francisco Chronicle recently documented, the use of drones in a domestic context is already becoming a big business.  Some of this is innocuous, but when law enforcement departments which have already demonstrated a proclivity for heavy-handedness request such technology the better to spy on citizens and monitor the activities of “suspicious persons” (a designation which could cover all manner of sins, including free-thinking, free speech, and protest), things are headed in the wrong direction.

I frankly do not trust those in power, particularly those in hyper-aggressive, even militaristic institutions like the police, the military, and “homeland security” staff with this kind of tool.  They have proven time and again that when set against something fleeting called “security” or “order”, our liberties are happily sacrificed. 

Bay Area communities should call for vigorous debate about this measure, demand intense scrutiny of this move, and lobby their supervisors to halt our descent down this slippery slope. 

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