© Josh Sager – April 2014
Humanity’s ability to create amazing inventions is an amazing asset that has turned us into the dominant species of this planet. We are able to cure diseases, achieve high-speed transportation, talk in real time across the globe, and even visit other planets/moons. Unfortunately, for every wonder that humanity creates, we also create terrible problems and inventions that threaten our way of life (ex. nuclear bombs, powerful drugs, chemical weapons, etc.).
Oftentimes, humanity’s ability to do or create something outstrips our ability to rationally assess whether or not it is a good idea to actually do/create it. This disparity has led to the death or oppression of millions over the years, and this problem only gets more extreme as humans collect even greater knowledge and technological ability.
Unfortunately, one area where our technology has vastly outstripped our judgment is that of surveillance. In recent years, technology has developed that would allow those in power to implement persistent and near-universal surveillance measures on the lives of the public at large. Surveillance technology has become so great that it now presents an existential threat to the concept of privacy, both in real life and in our digital activities.
The Eyes in the Sky
Currently, several cities in the United States have begun the process of implementing widespread and persistent aerial surveillance programs which would allow the authorities to record of an entire city’s public activities and movements.
Through using thousands of cameras, including ones attached to planes or drones flying above a city, it is possible for the police to construct a video record of virtually every public place within their jurisdiction–this surveillance is ever-present, all-encompassing, and indiscriminate.
When fully implemented, a persistent aerial surveillance program would allow the police to track “suspected criminals,” analyze patterns of activity for suspicious behavior (ex. a poorly-maintained house with a steady stream of cars visiting at odd hours is likely a drug distribution center), and gather evidence for future prosecutions.
While no major American city has fully implemented an advanced surveillance aerial surveillance system, Dayton, OH, Baltimore, MD, and Compton, CA have begun pilot programs in select areas—given time, these programs will expand to cover larger areas and use more advanced technologies, as well as spread to other cities.
The following picture is an example of a real-life use of the aerial tracking program by the Dayton police department.
The line on the map is the path of a suspected robber, constructed through the use of aerial surveillance video. Such a video allows the police to not only track the real-time movements of the suspect, but also to go back in time in order to see where they came from and what they did before the incident which led to them coming to the attention of the police. This wealth of evidence gives the police incredible power to look at suspects’ lives in retrospect and cull their history for clues that would never have come to light without persistent surveillance technology.
The Danger of Surveillance
When analyzing the morality and efficacy of persistent aerial surveillance programs, we must weigh the benefits to security with the danger of oppression. On one hand, criminals are easier to track when the police have an easily accessible video record of every public space in a city; on the other hand, the mere fact that the police have a record of every public space presents a grave danger of abuse and flies in the face of privacy rights.
Personally, I think that the danger of any dragnet surveillance program outweighs the possible benefits. When the police are able to pry into the lives and activities of entire populations without reason, abuse and oppression are virtually inevitable. In situations where surveillance is easy and effective, people to challenge the status quo (ex. anti-police brutality activists, defense lawyers, and reformist politicians) are targeted for surveillance, character assassination, and even politically-motivated criminal charges.
The ability of the police to track anybody within their jurisdiction secretly, without legal cause and without accountability presents a massive tool for intimidation. People are less likely to challenge the authorities when they know that their lives could be picked apart on a whim and their activities put under a microscope.
We have seen numerous examples of the abuse of surveillance technology by the police—from the FBI spying on civil rights leaders during the civil rights movement to the NSA feeding illegally-obtained drug evidence to the DEA—and there is no reason to assume that this case is an exception to this pattern of abuse. While the police are tasked with protecting us, they are also human, and it is human nature to abuse power when there is no constraining institutional or legal force.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has regularly held that people in public spaces have extremely limited expectations of privacy, so it is unlikely that persistent video surveillance of said spaces will be declared a violation of the law. This approval of dragnet surveillance by the courts is a roadblock to reform, but it is not an insurmountable one.
We must demand that the federal legislature craft laws regulating, restricting, and codifying the use of mass surveillance by police agencies. Through passing these laws on the federal level, we can implement uniform rules across all police departments and ensure that no rogue jurisdiction deregulate their police to the point where police can abuse their powers.
If we fail to address this issue of widespread surveillance, we will one day wake up to realize that our every move is recorded, indexed, and analyzed by those in power. If we ever dare challenge the status quo and the establishment power structure, our movements, activities, and communications are only a few clicks away for those in power to peruse.