Skies will soon buzz with drones—but cops may not like it

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They say character is what you do when no one else is watching. But these days I’m wondering: What if someone’s always watching? What happens to character then? And that leads to larger questions, such as how do you even form an authentic “self” in a surveillance society?

Coming soon, to airspace above you!

When Plato wrote The Republic 24 centuries ago, he imagined the problem in a different way: If you found a magic ring that granted you powers of invisibility, could you resist the urge to use it for immoral purposes? (Spoiler alert: Socrates answers in the affirmative.)

I don’t think it’s paranoid to predict that questions of character, privacy and surveilled behavior are rapidly becoming much less philosophical and much more concrete.

Bear with me for a personal example: One day I was goofing around with my daughters at a busy playground in City Park. We were having silly fun, and the playful circumstances prompted me to yell out an absurd alliteration which referred to an inside joke the girls and I find hilarious. We were splitting our sides with laughter when suddenly it occurred to me: If caught on video and edited a bit, my exclamation could take on an entirely different and potentially offensive meaning.

The inside joke is too complicated to explain, and that’s precisely the problem. After I yelled it out during our rompery, I became aware of all the parents seated at the edge of the playground. Most of them were holding phones, which meant that most of them were potential videographers. Naturally, my daughters implored me to “say it again, say it again!” But I couldn’t. I’d already lost my sense of fun, and worried about becoming the star of an embarrassing YouTube clip.

Later, as I reflected on the incident I felt angry that my fears of surveillance had interrupted playtime with my kids. Even worse, I felt as if ubiquitous camera phones and the threat of viral video had interrupted the “authentic,” carefree me—the person who makes my daughters laugh with glee. If such fears can prevent me from acting goofy on a playground with my daughters, what’s next?

My friends, my wife (and many people who don’t know me) might respond to my concerns as follows: “Get over yourself. No one thinks you’re important enough to video.” Okay, granted, but that sounds like another version of the “I don’t care who watches me; I’ve got nothing to hide” argument.

I sense that’s not absolutely true. For example, what if your priest found Plato’s invisibility ring and wanted to use it to keep tabs on his parish during the week? Would you grant him free rein? I’d say: Hell, no! (On second thought, that’s probably not the best thought experiment to pursue.)

Or simply consider the vast amount of technology that’s already spying on us: security cameras, traffic cameras, phone cameras—they’re multiplying. Cell phone towers track our movements, search histories and bank cards record our preferences … etc.

Of course we all want safety, but not if it means living in a totalitarian security state. At some point we’re going to have to draw a line in the air to limit this surveillance creep.

That’s why I like the drone issue. There’s just something viscerally creepy about flying robots following people around, spying on us. I suppose satellites are capable of similar surveillance, but those things are way up there, out of sight. Drones are hovering just overhead—visible, undeniable.

After the Arlington, Texas, police department used a Department of Homeland Security drone during the 2011 Super Bowl, they decided to buy one. The police justified the acquisition by pointing out a drone’s usefulness in tracking people down: a convict on the run, for example, or children lost in the woods. Interestingly, the Arlington police also cited job growth and Arlington’s potential to become a leader in drone technology. This year, the city launched a “drone consortium:

The Unmanned Aerial Surveillance Consortium, an effort spearheaded by 15 corporate and government partners including the City of Arlington and University of Texas at Arlington, will be formally launched Feb. 27. Wes Jurey, chairman of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, said the consortium’s goal is to develop commercial applications of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Boy, it’s really swell to see government and business working hand-in-hand in furtherance of domestic drone surveillance. I’ve no idea what “commercial applications” they’re envisaging, but I’m sure we’ll eventually find out—later rather than sooner, no doubt.

It seemed as if New Orleans was ready to follow Arlington’s lead. The police department confirmed it was interested in getting a drone; Deputy Mayor Jerry Sneed was all for it, and the DHS was offering to loan the city a drone for the upcoming Super Bowl. But suddenly their respective hopes were dashed, at least for now. Shortly after The Lens began asking questions that led to a story about the push for a drone, City Hall abruptly denied the whole thing.

That still shocks me. I fully expected New Orleans to use a DHS drone during the Super Bowl and then attempt to shoehorn drone purchases into the city budget for permanent use. A local drone manufacturer, Crescent Unmanned Systems was banking on a similar turn of events. Yet the City opted out. Doesn’t Mayor Mitch Landrieu care about our security and our jobs? And what about precious children lost in the swamps—why does our mayor hate them?!

The City’s been vague on the reasons for the about-face.  Perhaps they believed the drone program, once exposed, would become a political distraction. Maybe there wasn’t a lot of extra money sitting around for flying spy toys. Or maybe they worried New Orleanians would shoot the drones down—literally. It’s difficult to know for sure. Sneed said the city had “no plans” to draw up a set of protocols for any future drone programs. “We’ve got enough to do without creating policies for items we don’t have,” Sneed said.

Well, whether the city gets a drone or not, I suspect they’ll be forced to confront the issue before too long. Why? Because the there’s a flip side to the drone surveillance issue. As technology becomes less expensive, drones will become affordable to more private citizens. Soon drones buzzing around towns will be commonplace—and not just government drones. I can imagine a flock of private drones tracking the movements of all kinds of people—friends, enemies, public officials, police, politicians.

In other words, high-tech surveillance cuts both ways. We already know that local police aren’t too keen when citizens monitor and record their work. Recently, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputies smashed Sean Warren’s phone as he took video of the deputies punching and tasing his brother Casey. (The altercation occurred outside the Warren brothers’ house in Algiers, which is within the New Orleans Police Department’s jurisdiction, not Jefferson Parish’s.)

In an interview with TV’s Frontline, civil rights attorney Mary Howell recounted a similarly reprehensible incident involving the New Orleans constabulary:

There was a memorial event for Joe Williams, the Hot 8 trombone player [shot and killed by police in August 2004, despite being unarmed], in the Ninth Ward. The police came and busted that up and arrested a number of people in the community there and charged them [with] inciting a riot. One was a young woman who was videotaping the police as they came in and were yelling at people and breaking up this gathering. … The police assaulted her, grabbing the video, charged her with inciting a riot. And afterward, when I had to gone to meet with the police officials about this, they told me that merely having a video camera or camera in a situation like this, where the police are interacting with the community, was considered to be inciting a riot.

Last year there were similar reports of police threatening to arrest people taking video of their crackdown on the Krewe of Eris in the Marigny. What would they have done if, say, a private individual had a drone 50 feet in the air, filming the scene?

The government and police can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim that the public will be safer if it trusts them with their spy toys, but then tell people that they are “inciting a riot” if they use video to document police “interacting with the community.”

Here’s a trickier scenario: What does law enforcement say when they’ve cordoned off a street crime scene for investigation, but a news outfit like The Lens flies a drone overhead to get a better look at how the police handle the evidence?

These issues are coming. Whether city councils and legislatures are eager to respond preemptively is another matter. In the meantime, I think I’ll walk over to the park and enjoy the skies while they’re still clear. Perhaps I’ll think about lofty topics such as character and identity. Please just turn off your cell phone video if I pick my nose.

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