Just a little over 10 years after drone surveillance inside U.S. borders was declared a conspiracy theory, it is now an indisputable fact of life.
This week, drone surveillance has taken a new step in its scope and is finally encountering widespread media exposure and a fair amount of pushback.
The "Eye in the Sky" system is being developed by Cambridge University, according to a new report at CNET, for which designers will use Parrot drones to identify "violent poses" in crowds. The system will be powered by biometric recognition and artificial intelligence.
The system is currently claiming 88% accuracy which, if true, is still quite unfortunate for the other 12% who will be open to being detained and interrogated based on false information if this system goes live as-is.
Although this system is in early development, the stage has been set this week for quick adoption of new drone surveillance technologies as they become available. In a Quartz report, writer David Gershgorn doesn't mince words when he titles his article, "This is the week that the drone surveillance state became real."
Affordable consumer technology has made surveillance cheap and commoditized AI software has made it automatic.
Those two trends merged this week, when drone manufacturer DJI partnered June 5 with Axon, the company that makes Taser weapons and police body cameras, to sell drones to local police departments around the United States. Now, not only do local police have access to drones, but footage from those flying cameras will be automatically analyzed by AI systems not disclosed to the public.
Footage will be uploaded or streamed to Axon's digital cloud for police cameras, like the body cameras it currently sells, where it can be analyzed by Axon's AI and used for anything from crowd monitoring to search and rescue, the company writes on its website.
Meanwhile, I've continued reporting on the resistance that is being mounted by the communities that already have been subjected to various drone surveillance programs, most notably Sacramento, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
What is perhaps even more troubling than any local surveillance program is that more information is coming to light about how all of this data will be fed into a centralized federal database intended to disseminate the data to other agencies local and federal.
In a must-read article by Jennifer Lynch from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, she details this new DHS database called HART that will include "Face Recognition, DNA, and People's 'Non-Obvious Relationships.'" While Lynch does not specifically acknowledge the emerging use of drone technology for surveillance of U.S. citizens, she notes the move toward observation of constitutionally protected free speech and the right to associate:
DHS's new HART database will allow the agency to vastly expand the types of records it can collect and store. HART will support at least seven types of biometric identifiers, including face and voice data, DNA, scars and tattoos, and a blanket category for "other modalities."
It will also include biographic information, like name, date of birth, physical descriptors, country of origin, and government ID numbers. And it will include data we know to by highly subjective, including information collected from officer "encounters" with the public and information about people's "relationship patterns."
DHS is also partnering with airlines and other third parties to collect face images from travelers entering and leaving the U.S. When combined with data from other government agencies, these troubling collection practices will allow DHS to build a database large enough to identify and track all people in public places, without their knowledge--not just in places the agency oversees, like airports, but anywhere there are cameras.
Drones will accomplish all of the above and more. The various trends in policing and surveillance technology that we have reported on over the past decade are now beginning to merge. We don't have much longer raise our voices about this nationwide system of surveillance and control that is being built with our own money.