Tuesday, 25 June 2013 16:08

What's that droning sound? Eyes in the sky are coming to St. Louis

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Mayor Slay's Tweet Mayor Slay's Tweet

Perhaps Mayor Slay didn’t mean to be ominous when he tweeted “There will be drones” on June 23rd, but that is most certainly the impression such a pronouncement should give to any concerned citizen.

The government of our city has been making a good deal of noise lately about bringing drones to the skies over St. Louis, with comments from Police Chief Sam Dodson and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce in support of the proposal. With this and the news that Mizzou’s journalism program is seeking its own drone program, one could be forgiven for thinking the whole world has gone drone crazy.  But why?

Dotson views drones as part of his “vision of modern policing.”  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Dotson told the Federal Aviation Administration, in a letter dated March 25th, “Criminals believe, and with some truth, that if they flee from police officers, officers will not pursue and they will ultimately elude capture.”  Dotson further insists that his drone program is a safer and more cost-effective method of catching criminals than the traditional lights and siren chases. However, Dotson has not released details of specifically when and how drones will be used in the skies over St. Louis. 

Dotson insists that the drones will not be used for anything other than what police helicopters are already used for.  Yet this begs the question of why have drones at all.  It seems inevitable that drones will eventually be used as roving surveillance cameras. Their cheapness and utility for this purpose are undeniable.  Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are able to stay in the sky for long periods of time without refueling, can provide high quality images and can operate at lower altitudes than helicopters. 

Certainly no one wants to see more bystanders injured in the pursuit of criminals, but the idea of fleet of nearly silent, highly mobile surveillance cameras canvassing the city at all hours seems like a situation ripe for exploitation and abuse.  How can we be sure that all neighborhoods will be treated to the same drone coverage?  Will drones be used to protect the people in certain places and persecute them in others? Do we really need to see more growth in police power?  With mobile license plate scanners able to track your every movement along highway 40 and cameras on every street corner, it seems like there is enough surveillance to go around. 

But maybe this is just the way of the future, the new world we live in now.  There certainly seems to be a resignation about the statement “There will be drones.” Perhaps we could be forgiven for turning a blind eye to the massive, impersonal surveillance conducted on all internet traffic by the federal government—reasoning that if we have nothing to hide then they will not be targeted. But it is an entirely different matter altogether when our local police force is using UAVs to conduct around the clock surveillance on anyone and everyone.  The panopticon state is becoming real and we will have to deal with its consequences. 

This forces us, the people, into one of those troublesome historical moments where we must ask ourselves what kind of society we wish to live in.  One where crime and other distasteful social elements are rooted out and eliminated with ruthless efficiency, or one where we are not at the mercy of law enforcement at all times and places.  Do we stand up and assert our assert our rights as citizens?  Or roll over and accept our place as subjects?