Fellow Travelers

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Domestic drone use, unarmed for now

The drones are indeed coming. Specifically, they're coming to the US, to our skies.

At first they will be unarmed. At first in Iraq and Afghanistan they were unarmed. How long do you think that will last?

There is an article in the LA Times, Pentagon working with FAA to open U.S. airspace to combat drones, which says:
The vast majority of the military's drones are small — similar to hobby aircraft. The FAA is working on proposed rules for integrating these drones, which are being eyed by law enforcement and private business to provide aerial surveillance. The FAA expects to release the proposal on small drones this spring.

But the Pentagon is concerned about flying hundreds of larger drones, including Global Hawks as well as MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, both made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in Poway.

And last week Congress approved legislation that requires the FAA to have a plan to integrate drones of all kinds into national airspace on a wide scale by 2015.

Combat drones are already being used for domestic law enforcement purposes in the US:
Police employ Predator drone spy planes on home front
He also called in a Predator B drone.

As the unmanned aircraft circled 2 miles overhead the next morning, sophisticated sensors under the nose helped pinpoint the three suspects and showed they were unarmed. Police rushed in and made the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone that has helped revolutionize modern warfare.

But that was just the start. Local police say they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have used Predators for other domestic investigations, officials said.

"We don't use [drones] on every call out," said Bill Macki, head of the police SWAT team in Grand Forks. "If we have something in town like an apartment complex, we don't call them."

The drones belong to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates eight Predators on the country's northern and southwestern borders to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. The previously unreported use of its drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement has occurred without any public acknowledgment or debate.

The question becomes, as we face the growing menace of domestic drones, who will speak out against their expansion? Will they be taken seriously?
There is always a large segment of the population that reflexively supports the use of greater government and police power — it’s usually the same segment that has little objection to Endless War — and it’s grounded in a mix of standard authoritarianism (I side with authority over those they accused of being Bad and want authorities increasingly empowered to stop the Bad people) along with naiveté (I don’t really worry that new weapons and powers will be abused by those in power, especially when — like now — those in power are Good). This mindset manifests in the domestic drone context specifically by dismissing their use as nothing more than the functional equivalent of police helicopters. This is a view grounded in pure ignorance.

Large combat drones like the Predator and the Reaper still face difficulty in being brought to US skies, simply because of their size. But there are smaller assassination drones in development/use, like the Switchblade, which can be used and still meet the FAA guidelines.
Unmanned Aircraft: Bringing A Switchblade To A Knife Fight
The Switchblade is at the other end of the spectrum. It is a very short-range, low-altitude, lightweight, tube-fired UAV that is carried and deployed by individual warfighters. As its name implies, the utility of Switchblade is in the close-in fight, particularly in rugged and complex environments when U.S. combatants need to engage hostile forces that are behind barriers, around the corner of a building or in a cave. In a knife fight the advantage goes to the combatant with the longer reach and the ability to seek out an opponent’s vulnerable points. These are the advantages Switchblade provides.

The makers of the Switchblade advertise that
it is a loitering unmanned aircraft which can kill a single target through use of an onboard explosive, with little to no collateral damage. They also advertise that
they're selling to the military, allied military forces, non-military customers, and that they're looking for opportunities beyond the military market.
In Texas, police forces using drones currently are eagerly looking forward to the days when they can weaponize these craft. They fully intend to do this at some point in the future.
Texas civil libertarians have eye on police drones
Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel of the sheriff's office said the $300,000 ShadowHawk drone - purchased from Vanguard Defense Industries with federal homeland security grant funds - will take to the air in the coming months to provide another tool in the law enforcement arsenal.
In the future, the drone could be equipped to carry nonlethal weapons such as Tasers or a bean-bag gun, McDaniel said.

New FAA rules have been passed to ease up on the rules that currently restrict domestic drone use. The laws are being made to massively expand domestic drone use, and whenever the laws are unclear, the law enforcement forces will simply use them anyway (as evidenced by the earlier LA Times story):
The Drone Next Door: New FAA Rules Will Increase UAVs In National Airspace
A new set of laws will require the FAA to ease up on the rules governing domestic drone use — and to find a way to integrate them into national airspace alongside regular aircraft.

Earlier this week, the Senate passed a bill by a vote of 75-20 that had been fought over in Congress for several years, which appropriates $63.4 billion for the FAA, and, among other things, requires the FAA to loosen restrictions on domestic drone use by September, 2015.
The federal government is also facing a lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog group that is asking for the FAA to release records on the almost-300 agencies that have authorization to operate drones domestically. Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the EFF who brought the case, told TPM that this bill makes their suit even more important. “I think the fact that Congress is pressuring the FAA to expand its UAS program through the FAA Reauthorization Act only reinforces the need for these records,” Lynch said. “It’s important that we learn more about how the federal government and state and local law enforcement agencies are already using UASs before we expand their use further. The privacy concerns posed by the use of drones for domestic surveillance are too great to excuse the FAA’s lack of transparency on this issue.”

This expansion of domestic drone use, even unarmed, has dire consequences for quaint concept like personal privacy and 4th Amendment rights:
Dawn Of The Drones: The Realization Of The Total Surveillance State
Imagine a robot hovering overhead as you go about your day, driving to and from work, heading to the grocery store, or stopping by a friend’s house. The robot records your every movement with a surveillance camera and streams the information to a government command center. If you make a wrong move, or even appear to be doing something suspicious, the police will respond quickly and you’ll soon be under arrest. Even if you don’t do anything suspicious, the information of your whereabouts, including what stores and offices you visit, what political rallies you attend, and what people you meet will be recorded, saved and easily accessed at a later date. It is a frightening thought, but you don’t have to imagine this scenario. We are only a few years away from the realization of this total surveillance society.

Congress has just passed a bill, the FAA Reauthorization Act, mandating that the Federal Aviation Administration create a comprehensive program for the integration of drone technology into the national air space by 2015. The FAA predicts that there will be 30,000 drones crisscrossing the skies of America by 2020, all part of an industry that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year. This mandate is yet another example of the political power of the military-industrial complex, Congress’ disdain for the privacy of American citizens, and the rampant growth of government. With this single piece of legislation, Congress is opening the floodgates to an entirely new era of surveillance, one in which no person is safe from the prying eyes of the government. This may prove to be the final nail in the Fourth Amendment’s coffin.

The technology for this permanent surveillance state already exists, and is already in use by our military in Afghanistan:
Gorgon Stare surveillance system gazes over Afghan war zone
The system consists of nine video cameras mounted on a drone and can potentially transmit live video images of physical movement in an entire small town — a huge leap over current Air Force technology.

Gorgon Stare, which has been under development for more than two years, is designed to send up to 65 different images to different users with what the military refers to as “wide-area surveillance.” In comparison, most other Air Force surveillance drones record video from a single camera, with a much narrower field of vision.

In its statement, the Air Force confirmed for the first time that Gorgon Stare had been deployed but gave no details of how it is being used, citing “security reasons.” In the past, Air Force officials have predicted that Gorgon Stare’s sensors would enable troops on the ground to gaze over wide areas when searching for the enemy or record any movements made across a village.

As I noted in a piece on DailyKos and my blog called "The undeclared drone war", combat drones are being used with little-to-no accountability or oversight in places like Pakistan, and in legally and morally questionable manners (in addition to killing "terrorists", we're killing first responders who show up to the scene of the drone strike, and mourners at the funerals), to kill combatants, noncombatants, innocent bystanders, and American citizens. Moreover, this is being done with widespread public support, according to a recent poll. As we see domestic drone use in the US expand, as we see those drones become weaponized and militarized, who will stand against it? By the time any serious opposition is mustered, will it be too late?

Something else to point out: There are very few defenses against drones right now, if any. With the sellers of the Switchblade and similar UAVs looking to increase their market, what prevents these from being used by the terrorists? It's a typically American conceit to think that anything we develop can never ever be used against us. As Ken Allen of the Huffington Post points out, this is a weapon that could be used against us:
Leave aside the legal questions and the question of whether minimal use of such devices is more or less moral than the bombing we've traditionally done. Consider that the U.S. government even now has no monopoly on drones, as their use has spread to other nations as well as domestic law enforcement agencies. Sooner or later (and, I would wager, uncomfortably soon) drones and their descendants will be in the hands of terrorist organizations, or even individuals. It is hard to imagine what might be an effective defense against them, and no public figure anywhere, the President of the United States included, will be safe.

I think it will be, militarized drones in our skies are the future we face. And I think a majority of the American people will cheer it on, or at least not put up any real fight. The thing that concerns me is that nobody seems to want to consider the long term ramifications of this, and what it means for our future, our safety, and our rights to privacy.

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