18 February 2020 — Drone Wars
Arthur Holland Michel, author of ‘Eyes In The Sky’, is one of the co-founders of the Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York State. The Centre for the Study of the Drone has done extraordinary work in monitoring the spread in the use of drones, including publication of ‘The Drone Databook’, a detailed country-by-county study of military drone capabilities; a comprehensive study of counter-drone systems; and a weekly round-up of news and developments in the world of drones.
With this pedigree, and Michel’s background as a journalist reporting on technical issues, we can expect an authoritative and carefully considered account of the topic he has chosen to investigate in this book: the emergence of wide area persistent surveillance systems and their use in warfare and policing. Based in large part on interviews with insiders, ‘Eyes In The Sky’ gives a balanced but nevertheless worrying account of the dramatic implications that wide area surveillance will have for society.
The development of wide area surveillance systems, which are able to monitor and track activity over large areas through a combination of imaging and artificial intelligence technologies, is closely linked to the evolution of the US Reaper drone programme and Reaper’s role in the US’s ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East. ‘Eyes In The Sky’ begins by telling the story of the development of the ‘Gorgon Stare’ wide area surveillance system, built using optical technology from BAE Systems, which first emerged as part of an initiative to tackle the use of deadly roadside bombs by insurgents in Iraq against the US occupying forces. Named after the Gorgon – a creature from Greek mythology with snakes for hair which had the power to turn anyone who looked at it to a stone – the system is able to track from a drone thousands of moving targets over an area the size of a city, following them backwards and forwards in time to identify where they have come from, where they are going, and who they have contacted. Together with similar air-based systems with other suitably intimidating names – Constant Hawk, Angel Fire, and Blue Devil – Gorgon Stare is credited with having “eliminated” thousands of suspected insurgents.
The ARGUS-IS camera system, developed by BAE Systems, is the key component in the USAF’s Gorgon Stare wide area surveillance system.
Having witnessed the capability of such systems in the war zone, electronics companies and ex-military entrepreneurs are now keen to apply them to domestic policing by ‘filming everything all the time’ to identify criminals and criminal networks. Michel documents a series of trials for wide area persistent surveillance systems over cities in the USA, drawing out both their successes in tackling crime and their potential for abuse. He reports that similar experiments have apparently also been conducted in the UK, with a tantalising mention of a Ministry of Defence project which has “already sponsored a number of (unpublicised) test flights tracking cars along major roadways like the M1”.
The book explains how by combining wide area surveillance with other monitoring technologies, such as facial recognition software, and artificial intelligence programmed to recognise ‘anomalous behaviour’ through analysing everyday patterns of life, the authorities hope to be able to break up organised criminal networks and predict and preempt crime before it happens.
Of course, such technology is fraught with hazard to the civil liberties of ordinary citizens, bringing the prospect of permanent surveillance in all public space; the impossibility of invisibility; and the potential for its use against those who dissent or demonstrate against the state and its policies. Michel points out the benefits that pilot schemes have had in law enforcement in the USA. However, the US is not the UK, where there are thankfully much lower levels of gun crime and violent crime, raising the question of under what circumstances, and for what aims, is the use of wide area surveillance justified?
Michel does not labour the point about civil liberties but instead interspices his narrative with a series of examples of situations where things have not gone as planned. In one telling story he tells of how he got lost when driving to visit a surveillance technology company, and was forced to make a series of u-turns, stops, and lane changes during his journey – perfectly innocent behaviour that would almost certainly have been flagged up as ‘anomalous’ by a surveillance system seeking out deviations from normal patterns of life. He also gives examples of cases where communities have successfully resisted the introduction of wide area surveillance, and draws out the importance of community consent, clear goals, and transparency if such technology is to be adequately regulated in its use.
‘Eyes In The Sky’ is a readable analysis of an important area of emerging technology, which will appeal to both specialists and non-specialists alike. In places Michel skims over the details of the technicalities and capabilities of the surveillance systems he is describing, and exactly what they do and how they work, but this is perhaps not surprising as much of the material he is investigating is only just emerging from the realm of classified information, and significant areas are no doubt still considered sensitive. As well as being a useful work of reference, this book will be enjoyed by ‘techies’ who are interested in drones and military technology, and more general readers who are interested in civil liberties and the processes through which technological innovation happens in modern society.