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Fliers, Spiers and Occupiers: Aerial Surveillance Technology and the Protest Movement

2012 May 4
by Jason Nairn, CPP, CISSP

Credit: The Propaganda Remix Project

In the Pacific Northwest a set of issues are converging that should have homeland security professionals grabbing for a Venti Caramel Machiatto and a newspaper. A brief recap of the pertinent events begins in February, when President Obama ordered the FAA to develop a plan for the coordination of civilian drone use in US airspace by 2015. Arguably this was an unavoidable bit of legislation, as drone use is already on the rise in a number of sectors, from agriculture to zoology. But the implications are not lost on individuals and groups that are concerned with privacy and civil liberties. And the potential applications for law enforcement and security are not lost on states and cities.

Fast forward to April 20th. The Seattle Times ran a front page article that resulted from a FOIA review of public documents conducted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and forwarded to the ACLU via a reporter. Seattle has purchased two helo-drones for city use, and became the first major city to gain FAA approval to operate them. According to officials, they are currently training operators and they will exercise caution in their deployment.

Additionally, last week the Associated Press reported that Janet Napolitano revealed during testimony in front of the US Senate that drone surveillance is underway on the Northern Border, and that drones are operating over a 950-mile area from North Dakota to Washington State. This story ran with some prominence in northern US states and Canada, but didn’t seem to make many ripples elsewhere.

Finally on May 1, the Occupy Movement staged a “General Strike” in a number of cities across the country, a direct action intended to reinvigorate the movement after the winter eviction doldrums. The City of Seattle saw significant protest activity on May Day which resulted in a number of arrests and continued action in the courts. Which leads to the issue which I believe represents the interesting convergence happening in Seattle.

What will be the effect of “total surveillance” of First Amendment-protected protest activity by unmanned drones?

Today’s surveillance technologies allow for high-resolution image capture of huge areas, this is what I call “total surveillance”, because the imagery captured could include everything visible for many city blocks, and the resolution can be of such quality that individuals can be identified. Mega-pixel cameras are capable of recording protest activity from set-up to clean-up, and officials can return to the imagery later to review the interesting bits of video from certain locations at certain times. I believe this new tool for domestic agencies is a game-changer, and it’s only a matter of time before all major cities are deploying this technology and recording major protest activity and other large events. Why wouldn’t they? You may begin to hear more about drone use during major events like the Olympics, major political summits, and even major sports and entertainment events like the Super Bowl as the technology becomes more widely available and less expensive.

Proponents of this type of surveillance make the point that the proposed images captured in such operations are of areas that are in public view, and that therefore there is no privacy issue. But this military-grade technology has enhanced capabilities that exceed that of the human eye and the images are recorded. Should this matter?

Here are three questions that I believe should be considered by policy makers at the federal, state and local levels as this new technology is deployed:

  • What, if anything, is the difference between these devices and building mounted cameras, personal video cameras, or YouTube videos from handheld phones?
  • How does “total surveillance” affect the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly?
  • What should be done with footage collected once the surveilled event is concluded peacefully?
  • Should other agencies have access to this data?

Fortunately, Seattle officials have indicated that there will be some transparency in their development of written procedures for drone deployment according to a release by the ACLU. This is a good idea, since what happens in Seattle is likely to serve as a model for the rest of the country.

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