From the Editor: U.S.A.: Under Surveillance Always

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U.S.A.: Under Surveillance Always

We’ve gotten used to cameras watching us in banks and some stores. We know the government records our phone calls and has the originals of our text messages and emails archived. We know web browsers record every click and keystroke we make so that their knowledge of us will ultimately be so intimate and accurate that they may confidently try to sell us anything. Satellites in space, if their controllers wish to train their cameras on us, can see if we laced our shoes with a snug knot.

Now comes the news that the government, so well pleased by how small unmanned aircraft commonly called drones have worked in military operations, has authorized their use in American skies. According to news reports (see the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal) as many as 30,000 drones are expected to be watching us from the sky after 2015. We thought only God had that vantage point and, mercifully, he doesn’t seem to take advantage of it. In the future when you are standing in your yard, you should remind yourself that someone somewhere could be asking himself if your behavior is suspicious. Hmm, was that a weed you just pulled out of your garden or a protected species?

The Department of Homeland Security is naturally among the 50 or so institutions licensed to operate the drones. Others are police departments, which are already becoming militarized with their SWAT teams, and universities. Private companies are also likely to be authorized and there is clearly a big, lucrative commercial market opening up in drone technology.

There are obviously benign uses for this technology that will give timely and helpful information that would otherwise be nearly impossible to obtain. Like looking for lost hikers. Or appropriate police uses like looking for drug smugglers at the border. But all those rely on the virtue of the person in control of the technology. We must trust that those in control restrain themselves to employing drones only for good purposes. How much do you trust the virtue of those possessing power?

Drones are challenging our fundamental sense of what it means to have human dignity and the notions of liberty that we learned in school. Those freedoms and our privacy have deteriorated gradually while we go on assuming our assumptions are intact. Soon our technologies will enable those in authority to manage us absolutely. Will America still be the Land of the Free or essentially a continental prison yard? Will we have responsibility for ourselves? Will we develop in virtue to master that responsibility? Or will we be herded?