Politics & Policy

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.

#ad#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.

#page#America’s drones make London’s cameras look like Super 8s, which is all the more reason to insist that the “rights and privacy of individuals need to be guaranteed.” Mercifully, someone is on the case. On June 12, Senator Rand Paul introduced a bill into the Senate that would require a warrant to be issued prior to the deployment of a drone, and allow for civil suits to be brought in cases of abuse. Paul’s bill carves out the usual exemptions for “reasonable suspicion” (a lower standard than “probable cause”), “high risk of terrorist attack,” and “imminent danger to human life,” but most importantly it provides that standard evidence collected without a warrant would be ineligible for use in a criminal, civil, or regulatory capacity. This cuts off at the knee the potential for drones to fly around of their own volition, finding “crimes” and making trouble. With this bill, Paul seeks to bring drones into line with criminal law in spheres that lack such high technology. A similar proposal has been introduced in the House.

Paul’s concern is that warrantless drones violate the Fourth Amendment. As he told CNN, he objects wholeheartedly to the secretary of the Air Force’s suggestion that the government has to “balance obtaining intelligence information . . . and protecting rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.” He is right: The word “guarantee” in the secretary’s own statement might give him a clue as to the direction in which the scales are obliged to tip in a constitutional republic.

#ad#Conflicted as they are, the American public should side with Senator Paul. Many things stand between us and tyranny, but that is not good reason to drop our guard, nor, crucially, to undermine the best bulwark against over-zealous government that the world has ever seen: our Constitution. As a farmer would be a fool to presume that the good year’s harvest augurs perpetual success, so a citizenry would be unwise to place the tools of abuse in the hands of the state simply because it is currently benign. This, if anything, is the Constitution’s role, and it applies as keenly to the “just” leader as to the baleful.

The refrain of the surveillance society, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?” presumes a perfect government — from the top right down to those operating the cameras, who will have their own temptations for abuse — and a set of perfect laws. This is not always, if ever, the case. The question, thus, is whether in exchange for catching a few more criminals and making the border a little more secure, Americans wish to erect a giant, warrantless surveillance web that pulls all law-abiding citizens into its hold. If the proposition was a network of camera-wielding private detectives, I suspect Americans would refuse the trade-off. So they should with drones.

Were each of Britain’s 1.85 million CCTV cameras held by a human being with a face, attitudes toward them might well change. This raises an interesting question: Does the fact that machines are physically divorced from those who monitor and operate them imply to many that they are less intrusive? Apparently, the answer is yes. Richard Brautigun’s 1967 poem, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” has been taken at face value:

I like to think

(it has to be!)

of a cybernetic ecology

where we are free of our labors

and joined back to nature,

returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,

and all watched over

by machines of loving grace.

We have forgotten, perhaps, that it is human eyes that will ultimately be doing the watching.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.

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