Phil Burpee, Columnist
They're coming. They've got HD cameras and some of them are the size of bugs. You can get one at the Source that you can hover outside your neighbour's bedroom window with its little video camera whirring away, and post the results on YouTube right now. Sunbathers, woodland meditators, roof-top dreamers, solitary contemplatives, lovers on their blanket, tai-chi dancers, lone riders on the wild range, mothers with babes at breast, walkers under the sky, placard-carriers, minders-of-their-own-business, any body, anytime, anywhere - somewhere there's coming an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to check you out. And they are coming in exponential numbers, such that every precept as to physical privacy in our cityscapes and landscapes and homescapes will be swept away without regard.
The time of universal surveillance is upon us. To put it in simplest terms - it won't take a cruiser with wheels and a driver to nab you for doing 130 on Hwy. 3 - you'll get done by drone, live-streaming from a thousand metres up. And it will no longer be a mystery as to who is gathered on the steps of the Legislature protesting dubious or harmful government policy - video-equipped UAVs with facial-recognition apps will buzz the crowd like some evil birds, reporting to their masters in the bowels of a distant security office, marking you for special attention, and possible apprehension for political deviance. The Eye on the Sky just took on a disturbing glint.
We've pretty much got used to the idea of UAVs over the last number of years in the form of the military drones much-loved of the U.S. military in its various excursions in the Middle East. So pleased, in fact, have American authorities become with this technology, that President Obama now far surpasses his predecessor in the Oval Office in the deployment of these weaponized flying robots for not only surveillance purposes, but more pointedly for the targeted killing of distant villains. Not only does this allow for the taking out of troublesome individuals deep in enemy territory, but it does so without the spilling of a drop of Uncle Sam's blood, and far from the prying eyes of either international media, or the pernickety gaze of the Geneva Convention on War Crimes, or the similarly inconvenient Rules of Engagement, which have historically, and necessarily, governed any battlefield - and without which murder and chaos far exceeding the so-called norms of conflict quickly devolve.
These are, of course, geek toys writ large. Military men aren't anywhere near smart enough to render such magic into actuality. Curious nerds with delicate fingers and hacker's blood coursing through their veins started to figure out how to get small, computerized flying machines into the air years ago. These resultant 'bots', as they're lovingly called, have now morphed into myriad shapes, forms and applications, up to and including fighter-jet size beasts costing millions of dollars each which can do everything a piloted craft can do, but without the moral or physical variable of having a human being in the cockpit. Indeed, whereas up until fairly recently any of these machines (including terrestrial equivalents) required some distant 'pilot' or 'driver' sitting at a computer terminal in an air-conditioned games room bunker somewhere in Tel Aviv or Kansas to make it go and do what it was supposed to do, it is now rapidly becoming possible to mission-program such a device such that it can operate entirely independent of any overseer, and go about its business using GPS technology to achieve its destination and affect its appointed job - such as motoring in about four feet off the ground at a hundred and fifty miles an hour and exploding amongst a bevy of ne'er-do-wells. We may recall the crude antecedents of such machines in the form of the old cruise missile of the eighties and nineties - pretty much just reef sharks on the evolutionary scale of things - but effective enough in their day. Program one of these puppies in and blast it off for glory. Leave some turbans smoking in the rubble. Only now it might be the size of a hummingbird, and it will have come in through your bedroom window with the night-breezes - boom. Or perhaps it is a whole swarm of hummingbirds - boom-ba-da-boom, boom, boom.
Times have changed though. And whatever you think of President Obama's ongoing rewriting of the rules of war, the fact is that we have inexorably entered a new phase of being on this planet. The robots have come. And our deep and traditional notions of societal and moral constraints are being rigorously stressed. We already know that much of what we have, since ages old, considered to be well-worn barriers of privacy have been significantly eroded with such phenomena as Facebook and on-line life in general. Now we will have to contend with great waves of UAVs buzzing around our world on an infinite variety of business. Some of this business will be highly beneficial mind you - tracking a lost child, checking crops, covering dangerous news stories, monitoring the scale and extent of natural disasters, etc. But much of it will be simply intrusive and well beyond the limits of what we have come to expect as constituting freedom of movement and a certain inalienable right to the sanctity of person. The fence is no more. The whirring birds are gathering.
So here's a now familiar refrain - "If you're not guilty, you have nothing to fear." This is the deeply flawed rationale typically touted about by such the likes as Vic Toews, our Federal Minister of Correct Thinking, or various police chiefs lamely seeking to assuage public concerns as to increasingly intrusive forms of internet monitoring and citizen surveillance in general. This excuse is often and persistently put forward to cover up fundamental erosion of civil liberties by usually right-wing elements for whom control is paramount, and any such niceties as rights of free expression and rights to public demonstration are troublesome anachronisms - the sooner done away with the better. In the United States for instance, under the Patriot Act brought in by Tweedle George and Tweedle Dick, the principle of habeas corpus has been summarily dumped and discarded. The implications of this are immeasurable. This principle, which underlies at the most profound level British Common Law and jurisprudence, as practiced both in Canada and the U.S. as elemental to the functioning of liberal democracy, is described as 'a writ requiring a person to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to investigate lawfulness of his restraint.' (underlining mine). Here is the assumption of innocence until proven guilty, and the compulsion for the State to account for any such restraint forthwith. Legislation such as the Patriot Act, which clearly resonates with certain factions of the current government in Ottawa, seeks to deny a citizen, on arbitrary grounds, spurious or otherwise, the fundamental right to be brought before the judiciary, subsequent to any apprehension, in a timely fashion in order for charges against him or her to be heard. Without this all-important mechanism, we enter a dark, Byzantine labyrinth of 'extraordinary rendition', unlawful detention, assumption of guilt, and a general widening of the abilities of the State to bypass the courts, and thereby likewise bypass access to judgement by one's peers - a principle so profound as to be virtually indistinguishable from what we choose to call freedom. So, there is room for concern.
Back to the buzzing bots then. The more we come to accept the breaking down of our right to go about our lawful business, without undue let or hindrance or otherwise intrusion, the more we abandon the expectations of same. We already know there's a good chance a Predator drone is eyeballing us if we go down to the States for a couple of flats of Budweiser. That's probably fair enough in the larger scheme of things - borders are borders and have always been subject to particular attention. But picture this - you enter a public space to join other citizens in demanding better accountability on the part of the government of the day, and are met by one of a swarm of brisk little UAVs, which hovers momentarily in front of your face, affecting a quick iris scan the moment you look at it, and then buzzing off, even as it transfers your biometric data to waiting trolls hunched over flickering monitors. You've been tagged.
So, on the one hand we've got some fat, pink frat boys out for a beery weekend at the beach dispatching their little Radio Shack buddy to live stream a close-up of some young lady's behind as she tries to relax and enjoy some peace and quiet under the sun - and at the other extreme we can see the Ruskies, who just can't let go of the familiar old bludgeon called Thought Crime, and for whom a girl punk band called Pussy Riot calling out Church and State for the ogres that they are is seen to be such a threat that they may be sentenced to seven to ten years in a labour camp just for thrashing out a one minute rant in a cathedral.
We're gonna need new laws if our liberal democracy is to survive. And I'm not confident that we're going to be able to get on top of this. How do you turn around mass video surveillance? And perhaps more importantly, how do you turn around the growing acquiescence to its inevitability? We have seen the undeniable benefits of citizen vigilance in the squares of Tehran and Cairo with uploaded cell-phone images, and maybe that will be the saving grace - almost nothing can be done in secret anymore, and that's good - so long as we can maintain an open Internet (another pregnant concern). But it will surely be a running battle now between those who would keep the medium open, and those who would constrain it to authoritarian use. Hell, even the CCTV cameras at the MD dumpster raise the hackles on the back of my neck - I grew up on the culture of 'Animal Farm' and 'Fahrenheit 451'. And I live in the country, so if one of the little whirring, prying monsters comes snooping around our place I can at least take it out with a .22, like the miserable varmint that it is - but that won't work for townies. Idiots and sinister schemers are loving these things.
Well, if you happen to be sitting on the throne one day soon, browsing through the collected works of David Suzuki or a luridly detailed copy of 'The Decline and Fall of the Conservative Party of Canada', leafing quietly through your seditious material, thinking yourself safe from all prying eyes, and you perchance to hear a faint buzzy/whirring sort of sound seemingly emanating from your toilet bowl - and if you have not indeed been otherwise partaking in unusually gassy foodstuffs - then I say to you this - flush, flush, flush......flush as though your very life and freedom depended on it!........ and be afraid!........ be very afraid!..............
August 4, 2012