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A Surveillance Society

by on March 7, 2013

I came across a post which posed the question, “should the US government be allowed to use drones in American cities.” The piece is in a community discussion – especially relevant because lately we’ve been talking about bloggers and their role in modern journalism.

The FAA, which has a September 2015 deadline from Congress to open the nation’s airspace to drone traffic, has estimated 10,000 drones could be aloft five years later. The FAA this week solicited proposals to create six sites across the country to test drones, a crucial step before widespread government and commercial use is approved.

Local and state law enforcement agencies are expected to be among the largest customers.

 

I first thought, don’t weather and traffic people use drones already?  They just call them blander names. You don’t think of dead civilians when you hear the wordy and flat unmanned small airplane or the equally unremarkable remote-controlled plane, but drone is a synonym. This made me think about the power of language and how the popular definition of objectivity is REALLY impossible. Journalists choose the words in which a story is written. Words (like a journalist’s choice of quotes) dictate tone and a carefully constructed message. Therefore a journalist ultimately (but sometimes subconsciously) controls the public’s reaction, or at least the reaction of a specific audience. Now drone is a word with a negative connotation, which is (partly) why President Obama did not once mention it in his State of the Union Address.

I then thought about the actual implications of commercializing drone use. “Local and state law enforcement agencies are expected to be among the largest customers.” That seems to bode ill for Americans’ right to privacy. If drones can fly above your house and take photos of illegal activities in your (gated and locked) backyard, what happens to warrants?  And since we now fight transnational wars with no regard to borders, the US government could potentially kill an American citizen on American soil without trial.

It’s safe to say that we have become even more of a surveillance society. We gradually give up our liberties for the sake of government-provided security. How much security are we truly getting and is it worth it? It seems to me that the potential expanded drone market will result in the erosion of our rights and will be to the detriment of free society. What do you guys think of any of this?

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4 Comments
  1. Mallory, I agree that we are increasingly becoming a surveillance society. The American people have shown through history that in times of “war” – which now seems to be always – we are willing to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of security (think The Patriot Act, and National Defense Authorization Act of 2012).

    But as our government and our military continue to wage wars and facilitate conflicts abroad in the name of protecting commercial interests these civil liberties are chewed away not by threats against national security, but by corporations backed by representatives in Washington that further commercial agendas.

    It is a scary notion that drones could be used to patrol neighborhoods and backyards from above without any warning or sign that they’re doing so (granted this is exactly what we do abroad). I think that at first law enforcement agencies would be the program’s biggest customers, but it’s commercial applicability could extend to postal services and eventually even transportation, given the expanded definition of “drones” you provided.

  2. Thomas M. Relihan permalink

    Definitely agree with you about the power of our choice of words as journalists. It’s amazing what using either an innocuous or an inflammatory term to describe the same thing can do to sway public opinion.

    NPR’s Marketplace recently aired a story related to commercial drone applications, which I found interesting. They make a good point in saying that a lot of the things that we take for granted now (GPS, the Internet) were originally developed by the military and later found widespread use among the public.

    http://www.marketplace.org/topics/business/corner-office/your-own-personal-drone

    This passage from the original article also points out the positive aspects of drones:

    “In Colorado, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office has used a fixed-wing drone to search for lost hikers in the mountains, and a helicopter drone to help crews battling fires. Flying manned planes or helicopters would cost at least $600 an hour, explained Ben Miller, who heads the program.”

    Personally, I’m not entirely opposed the use of drones. I think they’re fantastic support tools for gathering detailed, accurate intelligence, and thus reducing the risk to our troops in war zones. Here’s an article I read a while back on that topic:

    https://www.google.com/search?q=the+moral+case+for+drones&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a

    I do, however, have a problem with strapping bombs to them and incinerating people from the sky. The method is too impersonal, and there have been numerous cases of collateral damage in the past few years that have been pretty counter-productive to our stated foreign policy goals.

    I also agree that usage of drones by law enforcement definitely has the capacity to lead to major issues in the realm of civil liberties. In the most extreme case, the use of drones for domestic surveillance kind of reminds me of one of the other things that Jeremy Bentham is famous for besides utilitarianism, the panopticon – basically a hypothetical circular prison with all the cells facing inwards towards a tower in the center, which can see into every cell at any given time but can not be seen into by any of the inmates, thus keeping the prison population under control through the idea that they could be under surveillance at any time.

    I find this pretty unnerving as well:

    “Tiny drones could even be used to fly inside buildings to shoot video if a suspect has barricaded himself within.”

    Another issue is the possibility of drones becoming self-aware killing machines, at which point only Keanu Reeves or Will Smith could save us. (Just kidding!)

  3. I agree that the emergence of drone journalism is very controversial. There are some positive aspects of drone journalism, such as being able to acquire footage where reporters cannot be on the ground. Ethical questions come up, however, when drones acquire footage of private property, as Mallory mentioned, and furthermore when illegal activity is discovered via a drone.

    The following is a story in which a drone captured footage that proved that a meat packing plant in Dallas was conducting illegal activity on their ground by disposing of animal blood on land that would run into public waters. (The reddish tint of blood on the ground was captured by the drone overhead.) Journalists had previously been denied traditional access to the suspect meat packing plant, so this brings up the question of warrants and privacy rights. Once illegal activity is discovered, whether intentionally or inadvertently, what is one to do with the information? Especially in this situation when the illegal disposal of blood could have an affect on public health?

    http://www.suasnews.com/2012/01/11389/dallas-meat-packing-plant-investigated-after-drone-images-reveal-pollution/

    Since drone journalism is so new and so unpredictable, journalists don’t really know how to trek this uncharted territory. An ethical code must be created specifically for drone journalism if it is going to become an accepted form of journalism. I am torn as to whether drones should be used by journalists, but for now, I am inclined to say that it may be ethical for some purposes, but unethical for others. But then where do you draw the line?

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