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Enemy UAV, on-line

January 25, 2010

Generally speaking I can accept CCTV cameras, of which the UK in general and my ex-hometown London in particular have so very many, in the category of things that do little harm and more good, and therefore admissible. The theory is approximately that they’re not doing much that human eyewitnesses can’t do: government-operated ones monitor public places, where you expect to be casually observed by dozens if not hundreds of people; and privately owned ones monitor private property, whose owners have the right to have it constantly guarded if they so wish (and we’re used to the idea that we give up a small amount of autonomy when in someone else’s space under someone else’s rules).

The problem comes when the surveillance machines start poking their electronic noses into spaces where they are not expected or welcome. To stay with the “my space = my rules” theme from above, it’s when surveillance from an external source, public- or private-owned, starts to impinge on a space where one of the rules is “Do Not Survey”. Home spaces. I would say offhand that, in rough escalating order the spaces generally considered off-limits in this fashion are garden, house, bedroom, hard drive, body, and mind.

As a society, we’ve decided that we can impinge on individual citizens’ right to privacy if there’s sufficient benefit to the populace at large. For a generic example, a politician’s private life becomes relevant if they don’t practice what they preach (sexually, financially, whatever) because it’s in the interests of democracy to know if we’ve elected representatives we can’t trust. It might be politically relevant if the Right Hon. David Cameron, after his party’s numerous publicly aired opinions on marriage, got a divorce; other than that, who cares?

The other thing that can offset breaches of individual privacy is, I think, freedom of data. Google Streetview shows the tops of people’s houses, the layout of their gardens, the tops of their cars; a friend of a friend even had their cat visible on the picture. Gardens, especially, are usually considered private space, and yet the most common reaction to Streetview (including mine) is “… that’s pretty cool.” Because we can see it; because you can go and look at your mate’s television aerial or David Cameron’s shed if you really want to. Because the data is freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection (and the internet is freely accessible to anyone with a small amount of money/a library card), it’s cool rather than threatening.

But imagine for a moment if the technology existed, if the data existed, and only the government could look at it. Exact same substance – and Streetview isn’t even particularly sensitive data, being mid-resolution photos mostly several months out of date – but suddenly the prospect seems much less awesome and much more frightening.

Public information is pretty much unequivocally a good thing: it counters ignorance and misinformation, and an informed populace is a freer populace.

There’s a line to be drawn at this point between specific and anonymised data. Streetview doesn’t tell you anything about who lives in which house. The national abortion statistics (available from don’t tell you whether your mother ever had one, or your sister. The census information telling us that Norwich is the most atheist place in England doesn’t tell us who its 33,766 self-declared areligionists are.

And this is the thing: it is the choice of the individual how much of their information to put into the public sphere. Not the government’s, not anyone else’s. Extant data should be free; but how much people contribute to that pool of extant data has to be their own informed choice.

(There’s the side point that, more now than ever, you can’t kill information. If someone reveals on the Internet that they are [insert characteristic here], it will likely never go away, ever.)

All of the above was basically a prelude to another drip from the leaking tap of disillusionment: new for 2010, our government spying on us with UAVs. (Hat tip to Snowdrop at A Femanist View for the link.) Yes, CCTV is apparently not good enough, and we will now have military-grade spy drones watching out for “antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers”.

I’ve explained briefly above why I think CCTV remains on the beneficial end of the scale. This on the other hand? Not so sure. Or to be blunt, hell no.

CCTV is inflexible: a single mounted camera could maybe track you down a road, but that’s it, and they’re generally obvious enough that the enterprising criminal surveillance-shy citizen can plan round them, much like slowing down for speed cameras. They can be temporarily defeated with nothing more sophisticated than a sufficiently heavy blunt instrument or a can of spray paint. And as previously established, the places in which they operate are clearly defined.

A UAV is military tech designed for the specific purpose of knowing where people and things are. They can track individual blobs across cities, and are also just about smart enough to respond on the fly to ‘suspicious activity’ which I suspect may mean ‘too many blobs in one place’. They’re difficult to see from the ground and impossible to disable unless you’ve got an armed air vehicle or rocket-launcher handy (and if you’ve got either of those things in this country, and you’re not the army, the army would like a word.)

They are also, as anyone who’s played Modern Warfare or probably a lot of other war games could tell you, invaluable for hunting people down. Knowing where you are is what they are for. People react badly to suggestions that the entire populace should be microchipped, tagged and visible to the authorities; spying from the sky achieves much the same end by slightly less invasive means. And this is before we get anywhere near “selling the surveillance data to private companies”, also a possibility mooted by the police forces wanting UAVs.

So far the Conservatives don’t seem to have said anything about surveillance in their pre-election guff, and it’ll be interesting to see whether they do. (Personally I have much more of a problem with Labour’s steady erosion of civil liberties than with almost anything else they’ve done, and yet so far Tory policy on the issue is limited to blathering about repealing the Human Rights Act. Yeah.) Somehow I doubt that getting rid of draconian surveillance measures is high on their list – especially considering how eager they appear to be to pry into other people’s relationships, for a start.

So, with serious political opposition unlikely to happen, a pissed-off electorate would seem to be the best way to get this spy-drone program off the priorities list. Ironically, thanks to the popularity of realistic war games, quite a lot of the UK’s population probably knows exactly what a UAV is and what they do. Maybe getting the word out will be enough to see the spy-drones shelved. I’m not sanguine though. We shall see.

As an afterword, I notice that at least one commenter on the Guardian post has already come out with “If you’re doing nothing wrong you have nothing to fear.” To which I have to say two things: firstly, can anybody in the room sincerely say that they have never done anything wrong in a public space? And secondly, can you guarantee that the government’s definition of ‘wrong’ is identical to yours?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    January 25, 2010 5:41 pm

    I don’t much dig the idea of UAVs, but what I’m more concerned about is that both parties-with-a-chance are now outspokenly supporting Sarah’s Law. So who the fuck do I vote for? Likely answer: the Liberal Democrats again, but whoever I vote for, fucking Sarah’s Law is coming in soon.

  2. Allegra permalink
    January 26, 2010 12:00 am

    I read this on the Graun a couple of days ago, and I think I was too stunned to say anything.

    Is anyone else getting mental images of the saw-carrying drone from Terminator 2? Or any number of other automated data-gathering devices with sinister intentions. Seriously though, depending on how good thier resolution is, two of my favourite pastimes (Urban exploration and naked hiking) might be under severe threat. Looks like I *WILL* be getting “Fuck off!” tattooed on the top of my scalp after all…


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