Never Mind the Black Helicopters, Coming Soon to an Airspace Near You: Drones

Reaper droneI’m not sure how others feel, but when I hear a helicopter overhead I feel uneasy. My initial exposure was to the innocuous weather whirlybirds, but I suspect that Apocalypse Now ruined helicopters for many of us. With their use in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we view them as bringers of death.

Then there are those who fear “black helicopters.” I was first exposed to that concept in books about UFO — they’re alleged to appear when aliens are attempting to intermingle with humans. More commonly, U.S. militia types, perhaps because Customs and U.S. marshalls have used black-painted helicopters, associate them with a military takeover of the nation. Never mind, though — here to realize even more deeply seated fears and represent a projection of your unconscious is our new old friend, the drone.

At the British site Open Democracy, in an article titled From Helmand to Merseyside: Unmanned drones and the militarisation of UK policing (thanks to Focal Pointer John Goekler for drawing my attention to it), Steve Graham writes:

In February of this year, Merseyside Police became the UK first police force to routinely deploy unmanned drones for normal policing duties. . . . Whilst not equipped with weapons, civilian police drones . . . are equipped with digital closed circuit TV. . . . The drone has a built-in speaker to allow instructions to be relayed to civilians on the ground.

Yes, I know — too much like a parody of Big Brother to be real. First, though, let’s explore another element of civilian police drones that’s equally disturbing (emphasis added).

The Merseyside deployment is [part of] a much wider push by arms contractors and security and technology corporations. . . . The European Defence Agency, for example, a body funded by the UK and other European governments, is lobbying hard to support the widespread diffusion of drones within UK and EU policing and security as a means to bolster . . . European security corporations like BAE systems, EADS and Thales within booming global markets for armed and military drones. The global market for drones is by far the most dynamic sector in the global airline industry.

Their potential applications include detecting “fly-posting [advertising posters], fly-tipping [illegal dumping], abandoned vehicles [and] theft from cash machines,” not to mention “preventing theft of tractors.” Sounds small-time, but some U.K. police officials think it would “revolutionise policing.” In fact, they’re looking forward to deploying “both civilian and military (RAF) ‘Reaper’ drones to monitor the 2012 London Olympics.”

As for “broader concern about the regulation and control of drone surveillance of British civilian life,” it’s been notable by its absence, writes Graham.

And yet the widespread introduction of almost silent, pilotless drones . . . raises major new questions about . . . the UK as a ‘surveillance society’. Is the civilian deployment of such drones a justified and proportionate response to civilian policing needs or a thinly-veiled attempt by security corporations to build new and highly profitable markets?

It’s hard to deny that drones seem like the over-reaction to real or imagined threats that’s typical of domestic security forces, such as the police, carried to new heights. You almost feel embarrassed for them using drones to spot abandoned cars or ATM theft.

Near as I can tell, no U.S. police force is currently using them, but Miami and Houston have them in their sights. Once they’re deployed in the United States, maybe it’s our patriotic duty to keep police forces from looking silly for investing in them by staging some vigorous resistance and giving the drones a real show.