The domestic drone regime and state power

Glenn Greenwald over at the Guardian has a must-read on why the drone is not simply a “neutral” technology similar in function to a police helicopter, but  an object that is fundamentally transforming the balance between state power and civil society – producing an authoritarian surveillance state in our backyards. Some of the highlights of the article are as follows:

1. US law enforcement agencies are rapidly turning to drones. Contrary to the “soft authoritarianism” worldview, this will inevitably lead to weaponized drones used against criminal elements and other enemies of the state.

2.The drone industry is lobbying hard for drones in law enforcement – seeing it is a boom industry. Such domestic drones will be smaller and more agile than the Predators and Reapers that have become staples of American foreign policy. The nation’s leading manufacturer of small “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS) is AeroVironment, Inc. (AV) AV manufactures drones such as the “Qube” and “Switchblade”, both of which can be carried in a backpack.

3. The primary trend in US law enforcement has always been the adoption of military technology.

An LA Times article from last month reported that “federal authorities have stepped up efforts to license surveillance drones for law enforcement and other uses in US airspace” and that “the Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it had issued 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators since 2007, far more than were previously known.” Moreover, the agency “has estimated 10,000 drones could be aloft five years later” and “local and state law enforcement agencies are expected to be among the largest customers.”

4. The drone itself matters to the changing shape of state power. They do things police helicopters and satellites cannot: they are cheaper; they allow for ubiquitous surveillance (see the “Gorgon stare”); they can fly for hours and hours at a time; they allow a nation to go to war easier due to a perceived reduced risk; they can fly in hard-to-reach areas, completely dismantling the little privacy Americans may be accustomed to.

Finally, the ubiquitous Surveillance State has a deleterious effect on public space, human behavior and psychology, and a nation’s political culture. More from Greenwald on this on a video and the transcript. As the ACLU explains in its domestic drone report: “routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America”.

For Greenwald this is because only drone technology enables such omnipresent physical surveillance:

 In sum, surveillance drones enable a pervasive, stealth and constantly hovering Surveillance State that is now well beyond the technological and financial abilities of law enforcement agencies.

Rounding off, Greenwald asks of this domestic drone regime:

It remains to be seen how Americans will react to drones constantly hovering over their homes and their childrens’ schools, though by that point, their presence will be so institutionalized that it will be likely be too late to stop.

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