We See You

I occasionally grouse, here in my dotage, that, because I am in my dotage, I am living through the truth expressed by Arthur Schopenhauer, when he wrote:

Whoever lives two or three generations, feels like the spectator who, during the fair, sees the performances of all kinds of jugglers and, if he remains seated in the booth, sees them repeated two or three times. As the tricks were meant only for one performance, they no longer make any impression after the illusion and novelty have vanished.

Most recently I invoked this Schopenhauer in noting that in Afghanistan the Bomb Men are rerunning the Vietnam-era Hellerian absurdity of “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” and while observing that the racists and related ignoranti who flock to smoothbrains like Sarah Palin are indistinguishable—down to the very words they commonly employ—from the knuckle-draggers who once hooted their approval of George Wallace.

Of late I am noticing a somewhat related phenomenon. And that is that They are working like twelve bastards to bring into Real Life various and sundry Horrors that I encountered, when once a wee youth, only as science fiction.

To wit: the skies will soon be filled with demonic winged mechanical devices that will see and report on anything I might say or do, a la the fever-dream imaginings of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. And they’ll be watching and reporting on you, too.

Drones are currently best known as cowardly weapons of warfare: American automatons take their ease in air-conditioned splendor, while tracking and targeting with missiles people who scurry about half a world away:

From their cockpit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the pilot and co-pilot are flying a pilotless Predator on a bombing mission over Afghanistan, 8,000 miles away. A forward air controller in another unmanned drone spots the target and the Predator bomber takes off under local control from Kandahar in Afghanistan. Minutes later, control of the bomber is handed over to satellite control in the cockpit at Creech.

Two hours later, the crew sees on the cockpit screen two suburban vehicles stop in front of the targeted mud-baked house. Half a dozen bearded men hurry into the dwelling that intelligence had spotted as a Taliban command post. Seconds later, the bombardier in Nevada squeezed the trigger and a 500-pound bomb flattened the Taliban dwelling with a direct hit.

Watching the action on identical screens are CIA operators at Langley, Va., who can call in last-minute course corrections.

Their eight-hour mission over, pilot and co-pilot climb into their vehicles and drive home. Thirty minutes later, they are playing with their children.

Since it seems to be The American Way to bring anything that makes a mess overseas back home, so that American citizens too can be bludgeoned with it, we are about to embark on the age of the drone in the United States. There are no plans, at present, to use the things to kill people. Instead, they will be employed to Spy.

And there in the land of capitalism uber alles, not only governments, but also people with money, will soon be able to get themselves a drone, and set it darting through the sky, to keep a squint eye on celebrities, competitors, kids, mates. As I quoted here:

Personal drones aren’t yet plying U.S. flyways. But an arms race is building among people looking to track celebrities, unfaithful lovers or even wildlife.

[T]he essential technology is increasingly available beyond military circles, and spreading fast. An unmanned aircraft that can fly a predetermined route costs a few hundred bucks to build and can be operated by iPhone.

“The military stuff is kind of passe,” [MIT professor Missy] Cummings said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist from MIT to tell you if we can do it for a soldier in the field, we can do it for anybody.” As a parent of a 3-year-old, she said, she could use the same technology to track her daughter on her way to school (she would need to plant an electronic bug in her lunch box or backpack). That would “bring a whole new meaning to a hover parent,” she said. Schools could even use drones for perimeter control.

But human nature being what it is, it won’t take long for the technology to be embraced for less noble ends. Could nosey neighbors use a drone to monitor who isn’t picking up after their dogs? “That’s possible,” said Henry Crumpton, a former top CIA counterterrorism official who is now chairman of a company that develops drones—including one that can take off vertically, fly through a window and hover silently over your breakfast table.

“The only thing you’re bounded by is your imagination—and the FAA in the United States,” he said.

[Raoul] Felder, [a New York] divorce lawyer, said clever attorneys will find ways to get around FAA restrictions, perhaps by claiming their drones are for personal use—a distinction that should steer clear of FAA rules.

“This thing would be totally legal. There’s no violation of anybody’s premises,” he said.

Ms. Cummings predicted it’s just a matter of time before drone technology and safety improvements make the gadgets a common part of the urban landscape.

Privacy issues could emerge if such drones become common. While the military has rules of engagement governing drone use, there is no similar set of rules to protect privacy for domestic use of drones.

“If everybody had enough money to buy one of these things, we could all be wandering around with little networks of vehicles flying over our heads spying on us,” Ms. Cummings said. “It really opens up a whole new Pandora’s Box of: What does it mean to have privacy?”

What privacy? We don’t need no stinking privacy. As the wingers will tell you, “privacy” wasn’t even invented until 1890, when a couple of lawyers, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, submitted their piece “The Right To Privacy” to the Harvard Law Review, that well-known commie rag.

“Now,” wrote these men, “the right to life has come to mean the right to enjoy life—the right to be let alone.”

Nonsense. No one has “the right to be let alone.” Especially if they’re doing something Wrong. And so, soon, in Miami-Dade County down in Florida, will debut the first full-on mini-drone program in the United States specifically designed to Watch Bad People.

Domestic law-enforcement officials have occasionally already used drones, though heretofore they’ve been required in each case to obtain “emergency authorization” from the FAA. “The nice thing is it’s covert,” Bill C. Nabors Jr., chief pilot with the Texas Department of Public Safety, told the Washington Post in January of this year, speaking for the first time about a 2009 Texas drone operation that targeted—surprise, surprise—Suspected Drug People. “You don’t hear it, and unless you know what you’re looking for, you can’t see it.”

Spake the Post:

As of Dec. 1 [2010], according to the FAA, there were more than 270 active authorizations for the use of dozens of kinds of drones. Approximately 35 percent of these permissions are held by the Defense Department, 11 percent by NASA and 5 percent by the Department of Homeland Security, including permission to fly Predators on the northern and southern borders.

Other users are law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, as well as manufacturers and academic institutions.

For now, only a handful of police departments and sheriff’s offices in the United States—including in Queen Anne’s County, Md., Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Mesa County, Colo.—fly drones. They so do as part of pilot programs that mostly limit the use of the drones to training exercises over unpopulated areas.

The Miami-Dade program is different. Once having obtained program approval from the FAA, Miami-Dade law-enforcement officials will be cabined to “training exercises” no more, but instead will be able to fly their drones freely over city streets.

The Miami-Dade law jockeys are claiming they will deploy their little MAV radio-controlled drones, pictured there below, only to “track suspects and provide police with images of hostage situations before going in.”

“It will be used in situations where our special response team has been called out and a perimeter has been set up,” recited Detective Aida Fina-Milian in patented police-speak.

“We intend to use this to benefit us in carrying out our mission,” added Detective Juan Villalba, also confining himself to police-speak.

Miami-Dade police admit that the drones can swoop around peering into people’s homes, but vow they would never do such a thing.

“We’re not going to fly it all around town,” Detective Javier Baez told the Star. “It’s not like big brother is going to be watching for you.”

“It’s not stealth technology at all,” [Sergeant Andrew] Cohen said. “It sounds like a small weed whacker, so it’s not going to be sneaking up on people in any way, shape or form . . . It’s not going to be looking in people’s houses.”

These people are lying. Anybody who knows anything about them knows that they are lying. For history shows that whenever they are permitted to employ any new toy, these people simply can’t restrain themselves from using it whenever they feel like it.

Ben Miller of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona says of drones: “not since the Taser has a technology promised so much for law enforcement.”

Yes. Let’s look at the taser for a moment. As I have detailed here, here, and here, the taser was originally sold to the public as a device that would be used strictly as an alternative to deadly force: that is, no law-enforcement officer would ever employ one in any situation other than those in which s/he would otherwise use a firearm, shooting to kill.

In practice, however, and as the links embedded above document, tasers have been used on such deadly menaces as a Seattle woman eight months pregnant, for refusing to sign a speeding ticket; on a 16-year-old Missouri youth, some 19 times, as he lay on the ground with a broken back; on a county-jail prisoner not moving swiftly enough during a cell transfer; on a handcuffed and shackled Kentucky prisoner, in open court; on a frightened, learning-disabled, 16-year-old boy who, scared, ran from a traffic stop for an expired license plate; on a deaf, mentally handicapped man who did not emerge “quickly enough” from a public restroom; on a completely immobilized man strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance.

And so it will go with drones. Law jockeys will use them in any and all circumstances where they deem them appropriate, circumstances which will, in the course of things, develop into all the time.

Law-enforcement agencies are so eager to get going with drones that they are themselves violating the law in “jumping the gun” by deploying drones without official authorization.

Getting clearance for the police and other civilian agencies to fly cannot come soon enough for Billy Robinson, chief executive of Cyber Defense Systems, a small start-up company in St. Petersburg, Florida. His company makes an eight-pound kite-sized drone that was flown for a time by the police in Palm Bay, Florida, and in other towns, before the Federal Aviation Administration stepped in.

This Robinson person whined to the New York Times that a bunch of fusty foot-dragging federal bureaucrats are preventing him from being showered with dollars which he could scoop up and use to buy more yachts.

“We’ve had interest from dozens of law enforcement agencies,” Robinson said. “They [the FAA] are preventing a bunch of small companies such as ours from becoming profitable.”

Aw. Poor baby.

It is right and meet that the nation’s first wide-open drone program will target Miami-Dade, as that county is chock-full-o’ people with melanin. And we know, particularly here in this age of Fear Of The Black President, that people with melanin are Menaces who at all times must be Watched and, hopefully, Stopped.

Melanin-heavy communities have been harassed by helicopters for decades, but helicopters are expensive, and so many law-enforcement agencies have been frustrated in their desires to watch over These People. Drones will change that.

Cost has become a big selling point. A drone system, which includes a ground operating computer, can cost less than $50,000. A new police helicopter can cost up to $1 million. As a consequence, fewer than 300 of the approximately 19,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States have an aviation capability.

“The cost issue is significant,” said Martin Jackson, president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association. “Once they open the airspace up [to drones], I think there will be quite a bit of demand.”

Doug Davis, the FAA’s program manager for unmanned aerial systems, “acknowledged strong interest from law enforcement agencies in getting drones up and running, and said the smaller aircraft were particularly likely to have a ‘huge economic impact’ over the next 10 years.”

Will the courts curb drones deployed by law-enforcement officers on city-wide melanin-hunts? I think not.

There are two United States Supreme Court cases that seem to me to govern law-enforcement use of drones, and reading their tea leaves augurs a win for the drones.

The first case is one of the most repugnant and absurd examples of galloping judicial activism to splurt from the pen of former Chief Justice Warren Burger, an utter nimrod who was one of the least-qualified jurists ever to grasp the big gavel. In California v. Ciraolo (1986) 476 US 207, Burger, writing for the high court, split 5-4, urinated on the Fourth Amendment in the following manner, as described by David Kairys in With Liberty And Justice For Some:

Dante Carlo Ciraolo’s suburban Santa Clara, California, home had a ten-foot-high fence around the whole property. Inside, there was a small garden plot next to the house, in which he was growing marijuana plants. The police got an anonymous call about the marijuana, but this is not sufficient grounds for probable cause or a warrant to search the premises. The police rented an airplane and flew over the Ciraolo home for the specific purpose of observing whether mari-juana was growing in the garden. They concluded that it was, got a warrant, searched the premises, and arrested Ciraolo. The Court ruled in California v. Ciraolo that the aerial search, although without probable cause or a warrant, was allowable, affirming Ciraolo’s conviction and altering the privacy rights available to all Americans.

The Fourth Amendment has never been interpreted to prohibit searches entirely but only to limit them to situations in which the police have a substantial basis for believing that a crime has been committed and to require, in appropriate circumstances, a warrant approving the search signed by a judge. The pivotal question as to whether probable cause or a warrant is required has usually been whether there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” This standard seems to emphasize popular understandings of privacy, but the conservatives have imposed their own very restrictive view.

The California courts had concluded that Ciraolo’s erecting a ten-foot fence showed that he wanted and expected privacy, and that it was reasonable in contemporary society to expect that one’s yard is private and not subject to police aerial surveillance without constitutional safeguards, particularly aerial surveillance aimed at a specific home. Chief Justice Burger, for the majority, disagreed. The ten-foot fence “might not shield these plants from the eyes of . . . a policeman perched on the top of a truck or a two-level bus.” This is not, he said, “an expectation that society is prepared to honor,” although he never bothered to ask society or assess the popular understanding of privacy. As long as the police do not physically break in or intrude, apparently nothing is protected by privacy unless completely shielded from all possible observation.

Ciraolo was subsequently interpreted to allow law-enforcement overflights of anybody’s property, with or without probable cause, particularly by dope-hunters with guns and badges. Which is why, if you live in area like this one—the foothills of the Sierra—you become accustomed to hectoring low-flying aircraft throughout the entirety of marijuana-growing season. Meanwhile, other aircraft roam the skies over those communities where people with melanin dwell, searching for Badness. If you are possessed of melanin, and you live in just about any good-sized city in the United States, chances are you have one or more personal stories involving some sort of night-time family celebration in somebody’s backyard, interrupted by police-helicopter searchlights hotly splashing blinding light into people’s faces.

The second case, Kyllo v. US (2001) 533 US 27, marked another 5-4 split, this time the opinion written by the Cro-Magnon “originalist” Antonin Scalia, on one of those very rare occasions when he was unable to summon sufficient urine to drench the Fourth Amendment.

In Kyllo, law-enforcement officers “came to suspect” that Danny Kyllo was growing marijuana in a portion of his home in Florence, Oregon. Without a warrant, officers proceeded to scan Kyllo’s home with a thermal-imaging device, which detects infrared radiation—indicating heat—that is “not visible to the naked eye.” The scan seemed to indicate that Kyllo had installed high-intensity Badness Lamps, presumably to grow Wrong Plants. The officers presented their thermal images to a judge, who authorized a warrant; a search of Kyllo’s home uncovered 100 marijuana plants. Kyllo was indicted, and faced federal time.

Now, because Scalia doesn’t really believe in the Fourth Amendment, once he decided he Didn’t Like this case, it was necessary that he roam around some in his anal orifice, in order to produce some nugget that would allow him to disallow this particular search, while still protecting his once and future right to otherwise give the back of his hand to the Fourth Amendment. It was doubtful that Scalia could produce a dingleberry as jaw-dropping as Burger’s Ciraolo wonderment—that a ten-foot-high fence completing enclosing someone’s property does not present a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” because it leaves all and sundry open to view of “a policeman perched on the top of a truck or a two-level bus.” And indeed he didn’t. Though he did try. In the end, Scalia’s invented reason to disallow the Kyllo heat-seeking search turned on the fact that a thermal-imager is “a device that is not in general public use.”

Applying Ciraolo and Kyllo to drones, we find that the Supremes, in their wisdom, have determined that sky pilots can snoop from the air on people Whenever They Feel Like it, and can also employ new-fangled technology so long as that technology is “a device that is [] in general public use.” As detailed above, any general member of the public who so desires can now go out and buy a “personal drone,” and send it after whoever they choose. So the Kyllo reason for disallowing drones evaporates. Scalia can easily distinguish his own Kyllo decision and thereby love him some drones. I’ve just shown him how. He’ll provide the fifth vote, as Roberts, Alito, and Thomas will approve anything the police want to do, while Kennedy was a grump even on Kyllo, seeing no reason why police officers shouldn’t be permitted to skulk around taking heat-readings of people’s homes Just Because.

One slim reed is that in Kyllo Scalia seemed to fret some that thermal-imaging devices detect Nakedness. He obsessed a little that “[t]he Agema Thermovision 210 might disclose, for example, at what hour each night the lady of the house takes her daily sauna and bath—a detail that many would consider ‘intimate.'” Now Scalia, as is well known, is an atavistic Opus Dei chieftain, a veritable seed machine who forced his wife to pump out nine new Catholics. Maybe if he logs on to the intertubes some morn, and finds there live-action drone-footage of Scalia & Co. engaged in these religious rites, well, maybe he’ll decide drones aren’t such a good idea.

But that’s too slim a reed for me to hang onto. I think the drones are coming. “You don’t want one of these [drones] coming down on grandma’s windshield,” says the FAA’s Davis, “when she’s on her way to the grocery store.” But that is indeed what’s coming. The ever braver new world. Watch for it.

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2 Responses to “We See You”


  1. 1 possum March 13, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Privacy!! What privacy? We have about nothing left these days. Earlier this week I was reminded law enforcement can obtain our cell phone records which track our location within a few feet. The records may be obtained without warrant or subpoena. We have no right to know if or not the records were released I gather.

    Privacy has gone far by the bye these days. Some of us give up some privacy on the web. Others give up much without even knowing what they are doing. Drones add one more level of lack of expectation of privacy to the entire mess.

    Anyone who believes the horse manure about not using those devices to watch otherwise innocent people is living in Fantasy Land.

    • 2 bluenred March 14, 2011 at 9:24 am

      It’s just depressing the way even the regular people talk about these things: like it’s okay to send them after your children, or your lover, or to go snoop on some celebrity.

      Cell phones have always been a trap. Warrants are still required for what I call “phones that plug into the wall” because of the dedicated lines. The courts have distinguished cell phones because those conversations occur on frequencies that are theoretically accessible to the public. That enables the police to listen in as if they were that “public,” without the need to obtain prior judicial approval.

      What you describe is a problem with the transnationals who peddle these phones: they are under no legal obligation to provide those records.

      Meanwhile, the dunderheads on the high court here in California decided in January 2011 that law enforcement can search the memory of any cell phone found on any person who is arrested.


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