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The future, Conan?
June 22, 2006 10:35 PM   Subscribe

Before I was even aware that such a plan existed, the FAA has put the brakes on a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office plan to purchase a fleet of 20 camera-equipped unmanned spy drone planes (only $30,000 apiece) to fly over my city and monitor civilian behavior round the clock. Sadly, the plan is not permanently kiboshed, but merely on hold until authorization can be obtained.
posted by jonson (39 comments total)

 
I can understand the concern that big brother is going to be watching us pick our noses and worse. But assume for a minute that there is crime in Los Angeles.

Wouldn't these planes help us monitor evil-doers? Wouldn't you like to know who killed whom or who stole your car?
posted by mert at 10:40 PM on June 22, 2006


And then I read the article. Hmm. It looks like the issue is more one of interfering with other aircraft... if these things can only beam video 250 feet away, there's no way they could set up a big brother matrix with them.
posted by mert at 10:42 PM on June 22, 2006


Supporters say they are much cheaper to operate than the department's 18 helicopters.

so what's about to change in your town?
posted by StrasbourgSecaucus at 10:44 PM on June 22, 2006


Wouldn't you like to know who killed whom or who stole your car?

I would love to know who stole my bike, but despite a big-ass CCD camera situated 50 ft from the rack, campus security refuses to look at any tapes.

As with all surveillance of honest citizens, this stuff will only be used when they want to put the thumbscrews on you for some ridiculous infraction.

Illegal surveillance just doesn't work as a crime deterrent: look at the UK. But it puts us further in debt and raises the country's fear quotient. It's good for keeping the government in power, not much else.
posted by Mr. Six at 10:47 PM on June 22, 2006


Sounds perfectly sensible to buy those drones. hardly big brother. And hey, if you're worried, learning to lead for large, slow flying objects like that wouldn't be too ahrd.
posted by wilful at 10:48 PM on June 22, 2006


Strasbourg - those 18 helicopters are deployed as needed, the expense of the crew running them ensures that they aren't just floating above our streets at all times, recording our every action. So, "what's about to change" is that suddenly there will be a fleet of roaming cameras 250 feet above our streets round the clock. But I thought that was clear from the article.
posted by jonson at 10:53 PM on June 22, 2006


Proposals to fly unmanned aircraft over densely populated metropolitan areas always make me laugh. My favorite was a plan, reported in WIRED about six years ago, to provide wireless Internet service using unmanned aircraft that could remain aloft for up to six months at a time without landing for maintenance.

We all own computers, right? Raise your hand if yours has frozen or crashed within the last six months.

The last publicized UAV crash was less than a month ago, near the Mexican border in Arizona. But by all means, let's start flying them over a city with 3.5 million people.
posted by cribcage at 10:58 PM on June 22, 2006


I'm not sure what you mean by 'illegal surveillance' or looking at the 'UK'.

Searching the tapes for the relevant bit where your bike was stolen, might cost more than the bike was worth. (Ignoring the benefit of getting the twat that nicked it.) For the moment that cost is a protection in some ways. Tapes are trawled through for robbery, missing people and so forth, but not for jaywalking or bikes being nicked, just not worth it.

The drones sound OK as it seems they will be called in to specific instances, instead of helicopters.. though I'm still suspicious.
posted by econous at 11:03 PM on June 22, 2006


Before I was even aware that such a plan existed...

clearly you havent read the LAist lately (self-link)

i hear they have a new Editor :)
posted by tsarfan at 11:04 PM on June 22, 2006


We all own computers, right? Raise your hand if yours has frozen or crashed within the last six months.

Mine hasn't. I can't even remember the last time it crashed. And I just run a standard windows XP PC.

It's not very hard to build a computer that doesn’t crash, as long as you don't throw on a bunch of improperly tested and written software.
posted by delmoi at 11:08 PM on June 22, 2006


cribcage I would have disagreed with you about a three years ago. I thought that essential dedicated hardware had embedded systems. Then I walked past an ATM displaying a Windows 2000 Blue Screen.
posted by econous at 11:08 PM on June 22, 2006


I love how they try to act like its for finding lost hikers to make it seem less menacing.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:10 PM on June 22, 2006


Pervasive surveillance is almost certainly inevitable. As technology makes it cheaper and easier, it will be used. Welcome to the 21st century.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about the concept. Is it equally oppressive that the police patrol city streets in cars? What exactly in principle is truly different between that and aerial surveillance? Is it the vastly greater scope which can be observed in this manner as compared to a pair or two of Mark I eyeballs in a police cruiser?

Or is it the automated factor? If so, I can actually see an argument that electronic observation is at least less amenable to bias - though the interpretation of recordings will still be subject to human misuse.

It is the use of - and consequences dealt - of recorded surveillance that we will have to watch carefully and restrict to protect whatever civil rights we choose to keep. Fighting the actual watching in and of itself... well, you can argue with the ocean till you are blue in the face, but the tide is still going to come in.
posted by John Smallberries at 11:17 PM on June 22, 2006


I'm not sure what you mean by 'illegal surveillance' or looking at the 'UK'.

Surveillance of public spaces with non-visible spectrum devices seems to be a grey area in US law. Many flight-bound surveillance projects use IR to track people at night.

Mass CCD surveillance of public space in the UK has done little to stem violent crime or theft, despite its immense public and private installation and maintenance cost.

Searching the tapes for the relevant bit where your bike was stolen, might cost more than the bike was worth.

To whom? If there's a gang of bike thieves operating on the campus, many are affected.

Again: the main purpose of surveillance is not to protect the innocent or to aid victims. Police just don't care — it's job security for them, monitoring displays, and it's easy money for security industries.

The rest of it is just showtime for politicians looking to claim they're doing something about crime around elections, by throwing money at technology that doesn't really work and only violates privacy, in the end.
posted by Mr. Six at 11:22 PM on June 22, 2006


It's good for keeping the government in power

?
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:51 PM on June 22, 2006


Where exactly does the Sheriff's Department have jurisdiction? Unincorporated areas of the county? National forest, maybe? Contract services with some of the municipalities? Evictions? CHP has the highways, right? I don't find the "lost hikers" thing too far fetched. There's a lot of rugged terrain in LA County. Fires to watch out for, too. I don't think they'd just be flying these things over the city of Los Angeles though; that's LAPD jurisdiction. Same with any of the other cities in the county that have their own police departments...
posted by mr_roboto at 11:57 PM on June 22, 2006


Constant surveillance. What an excellent idea. I suggest that cameras be installed in every LAPD station and monitored remotely by ACLU representatives. It would be cheaper and more effective than internal investigations and the like, and highlights tapes would make good TV.
posted by pracowity at 12:22 AM on June 23, 2006


Something new and fun to shoot at. Plus nobody dies, kinda like "The A-Team".
posted by First Post at 12:29 AM on June 23, 2006


Probably more difficult to shoot down than quail.
posted by Juggermatt at 12:31 AM on June 23, 2006


Probably more difficult to shoot down than quail.

Yeah, but quail went mach 0.95 and had countermeasures.

It is the use of - and consequences dealt - of recorded surveillance that we will have to watch carefully and restrict

In theory, simple countersurveillance could do the trick, as pracowity hints. Traffic stops might be different if most cars had several built-in cameras squirting imagery to secure servers elsewhere (ie, that the cop can't just smash).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:48 AM on June 23, 2006


@mert: I can understand the concern that big brother is going to be watching [...] But

It's depressing that this was the first comment.

@Smallberries: Pervasive surveillance is almost certainly inevitable.

And it's doubly depressing that this is a popular opinion.

Privacy is essential to freedom. And government surveillance is fatally antagonistic to personal privacy. It's meaningless to talk about living in a free country if you don't have privacy. The US is at a crossroads. We can either live up to our national ideals and start a Privacy Revolution, or we can let technology guide us ever faster down the path to totalitarianism.
posted by oncogenesis at 1:00 AM on June 23, 2006


In this article I read the thing crashed right in front of a reporter. $30k model airplane - FWOOMP.

I think one of the things that bothers me most about programs like this is that they buy it from some jackass contractor at insanely inflated prices. Just like how they'll buy $4,000 blue/UV broad spectrum "forensics" LED flashlights, when you can pretty much make the same damn thing with off the shelf parts for about 20 bucks and a soldering iron.

Give 30k to any small group of young, fresh CalTech nerds and you'll get yourself a walking talking autonomous killbot capable of threshing down dirt hippies like fields of wheat and thermite-lancing holes in armored vehicles, much less a simple flying video surveillance drone. Hobbyists have already been doing this stuff for years now, with a lot less money.

Anyway, I wouldn't mind being "found" if I was lost on a hike - however unlikely that would be for me - but I'd really, really hate to be "found" enjoying a backyard barbecue with some close friends and a tobacco waterpipe.

And I'm putting odds on those things getting shot down on a regular basis over Eastside or Southside. I know there's plenty of firepower for such a task in many neighborhoods of our fine city of Lost Angels.
posted by loquacious at 3:52 AM on June 23, 2006


We can either live up to our national ideals and start a Privacy Revolution, or we can let technology guide us ever faster down the path to totalitarianism.

You see, that's the problem: engineers like developing snooping technology (and worse -- see the "Give 30k to any small group of young, fresh CalTech nerds and you'll get yourself a walking talking autonomous killbot..." comment just above) and corporations like selling it. Many brilliant people focus lots of money and thought on coming up with new ways to watch you. Unless someone focuses lots of money and thought in the other direction (promoting profitable personal products, propaganda, and politicians to protect people's privacy), snoopers will always win the tech war.

One example of a need: a phone system that encrypts every call and doesn't ID or locate the caller. Cheap, simple handsets that use anonymous cards you buy at any store. Works in any country. Maybe based on one-time codes that your phones automatically exchange with friends when you meet face to face? Run it through wireless hot spots? I don't know, I'm no phone expert. And too many of the experts are making big bucks working for the snoopers.
posted by pracowity at 3:56 AM on June 23, 2006


During Friday's field test, the future of law enforcement looked like the fall of Icarus from Greek mythology. As De la Torre banked the Skyseer left at an elevation of about 300 feet (91 meter), the high-tech kite took a sudden nosedive and crashed in a vacant lot a few hundred yards (meters) from reporters.

"There must have been some sort of communication interference," said De La Torre as he inspected the multicolored wires and circuitry spilling out of his damaged drone.

posted by Balisong at 4:35 AM on June 23, 2006


Chilling.
posted by basicchannel at 5:05 AM on June 23, 2006


@o@n@c@o@g@e@n@e@s@i@s
posted by caddis at 5:11 AM on June 23, 2006


'A concern the officials said was unwarranted.'
posted by sfts2 at 5:57 AM on June 23, 2006


Wouldn't these planes help us monitor evil-doers? Wouldn't you like to know who killed whom or who stole your car?

As someone who lived in a ghetto part of L.A. and was held up at knifepoint:

No. I would rather have it happen again a hundred times than have a government surveilance plane flying over me all the time.

Of course, having lived in a ghetto part of L.A., I am already no stranger to that experience, only they were helicopters, not planes.
posted by bingo at 6:47 AM on June 23, 2006


It's not very hard to build a computer that doesn’t crash, as long as you don't throw on a bunch of improperly tested and written software.

What, like Windows, you mean?

Meanwhile, it stuns me that so many in this thread have such a que sera sera attitude to the idea of constant surveilance. Clearly Orwell wasn't wrong, just a few decades off.
posted by Zinger at 7:13 AM on June 23, 2006


Because you know, the drone thing...it flies and it record and god knows what it records.

Yet who cares, the drone thing, what if it's piloted by somebody with the skill of the geek and the sociability and ethics of a cop disciplined by a father and an overprotective mother into a boyscout.

yes you know that kind of guy that knows what's moral and wants to police you because you are obscene, even if you are obscene in your own home and causing no harm, you are plotting evil !

Basically he knows you are a terrist, or his boss who is his boss therefore he must be skillful and good and God said it's ok to kill em all, so enter the drone flied by the boyscout geek who soooo much needs to get laid.
posted by elpapacito at 7:41 AM on June 23, 2006


Mert wrote:

Wouldn't these planes help us monitor evil-doers? Wouldn't you like to know who killed whom or who stole your car?

really depends on your definition of evil-doer doesn't it? George Bush considers people fighting to remove an occupying army from their sovereign nation evil-doers doesn't he?

The reason we have the 4th amendment is because a long time ago in this land there was a King in charge who was paranoid that colonists might want to overthrow his undemocratic government. He decided he was allowed to search peoples houses without probable cause to make sure they weren't hatching plans to overthrow his corrupt government. Now when these colonists won their independence they thought to themselves that creating amendments that restricted the government's ability to search through a person's things without written permission from a judge would be a protection against a government that decided it did not have to adhere to the will of the people. If the people decided that the goverment no longer represented them they could gather to protest (1st amendment), arm themselves if the protests go unheeded (2nd amendment), kick any soldier out of their house that the government put there to keep an eye on them (3rd amendment) and finally - not be convicted for a search of their house that is not sanctioned by a judge - even if proof of guilt is found (4th amendment). These amendments were not created to protect criminals but to protect free people from a government encroaching on the liberty that these people just fought and died for. It's has worked pretty well through 2 world wars and much civil unrest. Don't see why it should be ignored now. Citizens should want to follow the law, if they aren't that means they have become disenfranchised. Any government that has to rely on it's laws to keep the peace is obviously not addressing the needs of all the people.
posted by any major dude at 8:10 AM on June 23, 2006 [2 favorites]


one more thing. If we allow our government carte blanche to search through all of our things (if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about) then what will we do when the day comes when our government has turned corrupt and needs to be removed? I can't imagine that a corrupt government is going to allow any of it's citizens to congregate with each other to plan their overthrow right? So these things will need to be done in private. If there is no more privacy, then how can you change the government?
posted by any major dude at 8:16 AM on June 23, 2006


*puts on NWA record*
posted by stet at 8:24 AM on June 23, 2006


what will we do when the day comes when our government has turned corrupt and needs to be removed?

When?
posted by Neiltupper at 8:29 AM on June 23, 2006


If this thing couldn't be made to not crash during a highly-controlled test, what makes you think it won't come crashing down on your roof, your car, your head, or your kid's head? Who's liable when this starts happening?
posted by clevershark at 8:36 AM on June 23, 2006


Can I have one of these spyplanes to watch the cops? Because then it would be ok for them to do it.
posted by nyxxxx at 8:43 AM on June 23, 2006



Well said any major dude.

I’d add that I prefer a face on my government interaction. A cop sees you - you see the cop. If you need help, you can flag the cop down. People see you waving, etc. and there is that social pressure (in addition to duty) that will make the cop come over and help you. Flag down a drone and you don’t know whether they saw you or if they did, they can decide not to help.

In addition - an on-scene officer can be reasoned with. In most cases, if you’re speeding to the hospital because your wife is having a baby or your buddy has been shot and the ambulance takes an hour to get there - the cop will let you go or even escort you.
With a drone you just get a ticket in the mail.

Privacy issues (already well-defended) aside - it is the responsibility of my government to have a community presence beyond simple observation. Period.

They cannot relinquish or relegate that duty to a machine and still be able to say they are doing the job I’m paying them for.
Granted you can use the data from the drone as tactical information as to where to deploy your officers, but the returns are diminishing.
You will still need to have a certain number of officers within an area able to respond to what the drone sees in a timely manner.
And if the drone operator is mistaken? You’ve just wasted time chasing that down. You’ve given priority to your central authority to override the beat cops judgement as to what he should be doing.

That reminds me of the situation with the private fire brigades in NYC 100 odd years ago. They would pick and choose based on political expediancy who’s fire to put out (and if you subscribed). The police as well. Especially in Chicago - if your ward delivered votes, the cops would bust criminals, if not, they wouldn’t. And so you’d get the flatfoot walking the beat stealing the occasional apple because he represented the faceless authority.

Today, community based policing is light years ahead of the sarge knowing what’s best, because the beat cop owns what happens in his backyard. When it works well he is not merely in the community he is of the community. And his intelligence is much better because interaction is vastly superior to observation.

Technique, not technology.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:27 AM on June 23, 2006


The LAPD is talking about putting these things up in the air to reduce reliance on helicopters. But the LA basin is heavily controlled airspace. Ask any pilot in the area. Helicopters are in continuous contact with Air Traffic Control--there are humans in the loop on both ends. But if you start flying drones in the same airspace, that stops being the case, and the drones become a hazard.

Saying that these are just expensive toys that anyone can buy is disengenuous. The hobbyists know that they're dealing with restricted airspace.
posted by dws at 11:42 AM on June 23, 2006


What, like Windows, you mean?

I think it's pretty obvious that's what I meant... I'd lump Mac OS9 in there for sure as well. Not that Windows NT/2000/XP really ever crash either.
posted by delmoi at 6:37 PM on June 23, 2006


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