It’s not just a question of privacy. It’s not simply a question of civil liberties. The technological capabilities and mandated powers that the United States government currently has will be used on American citizens because perceived requirements for homeland security will always supersede the rights of a free people. History has shown this. It’s happening right now.
According to records obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center through the Freedom of Information Act, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection are currently operating ten Predator B drones designated for domestic use and have plans to add 14 more. These are not the standard ones used overseas. They have been modified to be gun sniffers, cell phone trackers, and communications device locators. They can tell whether a standing person is armed. They can intercept communications through cell phones and radios. They can pinpoint the location of cell phones even when they’re not being used.
They are designed specifically to be the ultimate spying technology and they’re being used in America today.
As with nearly every bad idea that comes through Washington DC, the surface motives are positive. There has always been and will always be a fine line between protecting Americans and taking away their rights and privacy. Prohibition was meant to decrease crime and reduce the moral decline of the country. The Patriot Act was intended to protect America from terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security was built to do the same. Unfortunately, all of these were bad ideas with good intentions.
These drones, when flying over the northern and southern borders of the country, provide important information to agents on the ground. That’s not the issue. The big problem arises when their reach extends inward towards Americans themselves. This occurred when they became “necessary” to help with the arrest of a North Dakota farmer that began with “accusations of cattle theft and ending with a military-style Predator spy drone being deployed alongside an elite SWAT team.”
It doesn’t take many successful uses of a dangerous technology before the government and even the people themselves start calling for expanded use and increased reach of these powers into domestic affairs in the name of homeland security. As law enforcement sees these successes, they start recalling events where the technology could have helped a situation, where lives could have been saved. The campaigns to acquaint Americans to this type of internal spying are already under way. The use of drones on American citizens is quickly becoming an accepted necessity, though few are paying much attention. Even fewer are understanding the consequences.
Even the media, when exposing the realities of domestic surveillance, have a tendency to wittingly or unwittingly normalize these things in our minds. Rather than explore the potentially huge risks to our privacy and rights, they often paint the moves being made by the government as necessary evils in an increasingly sophisticated criminal world. They normally don’t do it in an overt manner. It’s subtle.
For example, in the CNET article on the topic, correspondent Declan McCullagh does an excellent job of investigating and reporting the facts. However, the opportunity to highlight the real risks of what all of this could mean was missed. The article notes in the first paragraph that these drones have “civil libertarians” worried. Whether intentional or not, the wording has the effect of classifying in the readers’ minds that only a very specific group of people see this as a risk, and that’s not the case. It may be considered nitpicking, but it’s important that the full breadth of the implications of this news reach everyone in a way that doesn’t immediately classify it as something that only the “2nd Amendment crazies” and Alex Jones faithful are concerned about. This affects us all.
The article further expands on this notion with its first full quote:
“I am very concerned that this technology will be used against law-abiding American firearms owners,” says Alan Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation. “This could violate Fourth Amendment rights as well as Second Amendment rights.”
The gun sniffing capabilities are not the biggest concern, here. Most Americans don’t carry firearms. The vast majority of Americans carry cell phones, and these drones can track them. They can intercept calls. This is barely mentioned until the second to last paragraph of the story. This isn’t a critique on the journalistic choices of the author, someone who does excellent work. It’s simply a note about how the information is being diluted by mainstream media. Before the meat of the news is presented, there are multiple opportunities for the reader to say, “this doesn’t apply to me.”
It applies to everyone.
Whether you’re a gun-carrying citizen or not, that singular capability makes for interesting banter but does not encompass the breadth of the citizen-spying capabilities the drones possess. For that, we need to look at the specifications that DHS gave to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc:
The system shall (T) be able to simultaneously carry electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors, laser illuminators, synthetic aperture radars (SAR) with a ground moving target indicator mode (GMTI), signals interception receivers, communication relay transceivers, and the option for (O) a hyper-spectral (imaging spectrometer) sensor.
In essence, the drones are capable of seeing, hearing, and tracking us in ways that are challenging to avoid. If a subject is under surveillance, every move they make indoors and out can be followed. The drones can stay with an individual for 20 hours. Keeping constant surveillance with access to at least 24 birds would be easy and there is no way that the subject would ever know.
One of the biggest arguments for this type of surveillance is that law-abiding citizens don’t have to worry. That’s just not true. As we noted last year, the FBI has facial recognition scanners as part of their Next Generation Identification Project. Powers were expanded for warrantless email monitoring. We noted that cyberwarfare is a huge risk but that the recent Cybersecurity Executive Order may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. National Internet IDs are in the works. Individually, all of these things are risky but manageable and able to be monitored. It’s the little details in each that combine to put law-abiding citizens at risk. You don’t have to be a criminal. You can be monitored if a suspect stops you on the street to ask you for directions to the nearest Starbucks.
The motives and political positioning regarding keeping Americans safe (sometimes from themselves) have not changed in decades. The technology has. It’s this technology that acts as a two-edged sword. On one side, the government is more capable of protecting us. On the other side, they are also more capable of taking away our rights, liberties, and privacy. The gray area between doing what the American government is supposed to do and what they should not do is growing. The waters are more murky today than ever before. Just because they can doesn’t mean that they should. The idea of near-total protection is one that can only be achieved by oppression. That’s the direction towards which the trends are pointed.
If none of this worries you, wait until you see (or don’t see, rather) the Predator C Avenger in action.