Monday, June 18, 2012

Doublethink on Drones

Americans ought to be more disturbed by the prospect of their domestic presence.

Something peculiar happens to people who cherish their liberty when machines effect its abridgement: They cease caring. In London, where almost 8,000 closed-circuit television cameras spy on the population without rest or interruption, the people appear to be wholly unperturbed. Even an advertising campaign for the surveillance campaign with the tagline “Secure beneath the watchful eyes” elicited little complaint in the land of Orwell, outside of advocates professionally obliged to be vexed by such things. But it did not escape everyone. In recent years, “One Nation Under CCTV” has become a popular piece of British protest graffiti.

It might be in America soon, too. In February, the president ordered the FAA to begin permitting unmanned aerial vehicles to operate in U.S. airspace, prompting the agency to predict that within ten years there will be upwards of 30,000 drones in use around skies above the lower 48. For this measure, a recent poll revealed a worrying level of support. Almost 65 percent of Americans surveyed claimed to be comfortable with drones being employed to patrol the border and to track down criminals. And 80 percent were happy with their being used in a search-and-rescue capacity. Still, the American public would not be the American public if it didn’t engage in some doublethink on a major issue. The very same poll showed that a significant majority of those asked were either “concerned” or “very concerned” about the privacy implications of drones with high-resolution cameras, cameras of the sort necessary to render roles in border patrol and criminal pursuit possible.

Concerned they should be. One cannot walk around London — or most of the U.K. for that matter — without being filmed from all angles. The result is a discomfiting claustrophobia that transforms a free country into a glass house. The average Briton is caught on camera 70 times per day. In 1997, the deputy commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police wrote an editorial in the New Scientist warning against the proliferation of cameras:

Now is the time to act. In the not-so-distant future — say three or four years from now — the intelligence of video analysis software will have increased many times. The rights and privacy of individuals need to be guaranteed before all power passes to those who own the tools of surveillance.

Concern about such things is not a new phenomenon. “Telescreens” played a vital role in 1984’s dystopia, although at least “the Party” in that novel had the decency to restrict their purview to its own members; in Britain, all citizens are equally subject to surveillance.

Fifteen years after the deputy commissioner’s warning, the “intelligence of video analysis software” is terrifying. Many cameras have night vision, automatic tracking, and powerful microphones, and are sufficiently powerful to examine wrinkles at 200 yards. (Orwell could only have dreamed of such inquisitive precision.) Facial-recognition software — so cheap now that it comes standard on most laptop computers — can turn a group of cameras from a tool that passively records the happenings in a particular area into a tool that actively tracks a human’s every move.

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