AIRCRAFT WITHOUT PILOTS, PASSENGERS OR BEVERAGE CARTS—JUST CAMERAS AIMED AT YOU—MAY SOON FILL THE SKY
by Nat Hentoff
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Barack Obama have convinced some Americans that no matter how or where they express themselves, their thoughts may wind up in a Big Brother database. But most of us are more preoccupied with immediate, all-too-real fears like higher gasoline prices and unemployment.
In his article “Dawn of the Drone: The Realization of the Total Surveillance State,” the Rutherford Institute’s John Whitehead offers a scarier scenario: implementation of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act. In a few years, this legislation may prompt a lot of us to look skyward with chilling apprehension.
“Imagine a robot hovering overhead as you go about your day, driving to and from your work,” Whitehead envisions. “The robot records your every movement with a surveillance camera and streams the information to a government command center. … If you make a wrong move or even appear to be doing something suspicious, the police will respond quickly.”
You see, the FAA Reauthorization Act mandates that there will be about 30,000 pilotless aircraft in our skies by 2020. As I’ve reported, these ghostlike carriers of surveillance cameras have already been sent out by the Department of Homeland Security and local and state police to observe “suspicious” activists’ meetings or to follow likely narcotics distributors.
The ACLU insists that “drones not be deployed indiscriminately unless there are grounds to believe the unmanned aerial planes will collect evidence about a specific crime.” Voicing optimism, the ACLU also acknowledges, “If we can set some good privacy ground rules, our society can enjoy the benefits of this technology without having to worry about its darker potentials.”
We’ll all be protected under the supposedly transparent Obama Administration? And in view of the millions of dollars to be harvested by the aviation industry thanks to law enforcement’s delight in the drone, would a Republican administration be any more of a threat to the rapidly fading Fourth Amendment than Obama and our current Congressional leaders?
Regarding drones, John Whitehead is a deeply experienced realist: “Until the American people succeed in raising their collective voices against this technological tyranny, the powers that be will continue on the path of total control, and the condition of our civil liberties will become more dire with every passing day.”
So will this really be “the realization of the total surveillance state”? Don’t count on it. I have never forgotten the dissenting opinion of Justice Louis Brandeis in the U.S. Supreme Court’s first wiretapping case, Olmstead v. United States (1928). Recognizing that the creation of inventive technologies would be boundless, he wrote: “Ways may someday be developed by which the government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home.”
In Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, Jeffrey Rosen—whose byline on these dread matters I never miss—wrote: “The technologies that Brandeis imagined have now come to pass—and they do not only affect privacy; they affect a broad range of Constitutional values.”
Here is how the ACLU is trying to protect you: “Now we have joined together with our coalition partner, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, to petition the FAA to ‘address the threat to privacy and civil liberties involved in the integration of drones in the national airspace.’” Remember: Some drones may soon have facialrecognition capability.
“You should sign too,” the ACLU continues. “Let’s make it clear that Americans are deeply concerned that drones not become a common feature of our skies until strong privacy protections are in place to ensure they do not become tools for routine aerial surveillance of American life.”
Are we “deeply concerned”? Then how come we don’t make that clear? For instance, do you know or care that the FBI publishes characteristics of people we should report as possible terrorists? As U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) notes in his National Review Online article “Indefinite Detention and American Citizens,” the list includes “the possession of ‘meals ready-toeat,’ missing fingers, brightly colored stains on clothing, paying for products in cash and changes in hair color.”
Like his father, Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), Rand Paul is one of the few members of Congress who truly cares about Americans’ right to privacy. So when you see a drone up in the sky, try to look as if you’re not a national security risk.
Nat Hentoff is a historian of the Constitution, a jazz critic and a columnist for the Village Voice and Free Inquiry. His incisive books include The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America and Living the Bill of Rights.