Two apparently unconnected items of news appeared on the same day, 19 June – though one can be forgiven overlooking their appearance… As any news, they arrived floating in an “information tsunami” – just two tiny drops in a flood of news meant/hoped to do the job of enlightening and clarifying while serving that of obscuring and befuddling.
One item, authored by Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, informed of the spectacular rise in the number of drones reduced to the size of a dragonfly, or of a hummingbird comfortably perching on windowsills; both designed, in the juicy expression of Greg Parker, an aerospace engineer, “to hide in plain sight”. The second, penned down by Brian Shelter, proclaimed the internet to be “the place where anonymity dies”. The two messages spoke in unison, they both augured/portended the end of invisibility and autonomy, the two defining attributes of privacy – even if each of the two items was composed independently of the other and without awareness of the other’s existence.
The unmanned drones, performing the spying/striking tasks for which the “Predators” have become notorious (“More than 1900 insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas have been killed by American drones since 2006”) are about to be shrunk to the size of birds, but preferably insects (the flapping of insects’ wings is ostensibly much easier to technologically imitate than the movements of birds’ wings), and the exquisite aerodynamic skills of the hawk moth, an insect known for its hovering skills, have been according to Major Michael L. Anderson, a doctoral student in advanced navigation technology, selected as a not-yet-attained, but certain to be soon reached target of the present designing flurry – because of its potential to leave far behind everything “what our clumsy aircraft can do”.
The new generation of drones will stay invisible while making everything else accessible to view; they will stay immune while rendering everything else vulnerable. In the words of Peter Baker, an ethics professor at the United States Naval Academy, those drones will usher wars in the “post-heroic age”; but they will also, according to other “military ethicists”, push yet wider the already vast “disconnect between the American public and its war”; they will perform, in other words, another leap (second after the substitution of the conscript by a professional army) towards making the war itself all but invisible to the nation in whose name the war is waged (no native lives will be at risk) and so that much easier – indeed so much more tempting – to conduct, thanks to the almost complete absence of collateral damages and political costs.
The next generation drones will see all while staying comfortably invisible – literally as well as metaphorically. Against being spied on, there will be no shelter – and for no one. Even the technicians who send drones into action will renounce control over their movements and so become unable, however strongly pressed, to exempt any object from the chance of falling under surveillance: the “new and improved” drones will be programmed to fly on their own – following itineraries of their own choice in times of their own choice. Sky is the limit for the information they will supply once they are put in operation in planned numbers.
This is, as a matter of fact, the aspect of the new spying/surveilling technology armed with the capacities of acting-at-distance and autonomously, that worries most its designers and so also the two news-writers reporting their preoccupations: “a tsunami of data”, already overflowing the staff of the Air Force headquarters and threatening to run out of their digesting/absorbing powers, and thus also out of their (or anybody for that matter) control.
Since 9/11, the number of hours which Air Force employees need in order to recycle the intelligence supplied by the drones went up by 3100 per cent – and each day 1500 more hours of videos and 1500 more images are added to the volume of information clamouring to be processed. Once the limited “soda straw” view of drone sensors is replaced with a “Gorgon Stare” able to embrace a whole city in one go (also an imminent development), 2000 analysts will be required to cope with the feeds of but one drone, instead of 19 doing such a job today. But that only means, let me comment, that fishing an “interesting”, “relevant” object out of the bottomless container of “data” will take some hard work and cost rather a lot of money; not that any of the potentially interesting objects may insure oneself against falling into that container in the first place. No one would ever know when the humming bird lands on his or her windowsill.
As for the “death of anonymity” courtesy of the internet, the story is slightly different: we submit our rights to privacy to slaughter on our own will. Or perhaps we just consent to the loss of privacy as a reasonable price for the wonders offered in exchange. Or the pressure to deliver our personal autonomy to the slaughter house is so overwhelming, so close to the condition of a flock of sheep, that only few exceptionally rebellious, bold, pugnacious and resolute wills would earnestly attempt to withstand it. One way or the other, we are however offered, at least nominally, a choice, as well as a semblance at least of a two-way contract, and at least a formal right to protest and sue in case of its breach: something that in the case of drones is never given.
All the same: once we are in, we stay hostages to fate. As Brian Stelter observes, “the collective intelligence of the Internet’s two billion users, and the digital fingerprints that so many users leave on websites, combine to make it more and more likely that every embarrassing video, every intimate photo, and every indelicate e-mail is attributed to its source, whether that source wants it to be or not.” It took Rich Lam, a freelance photographer taking pictures of street riots in Vancouver, just one day to trace and identify a couple caught (by accident) passionately kissing on one of his photos.
Everything private is now done, potentially, in public – and is potentially available to public consumption; and remains available for the duration, ‘till the end of time, as the internet “can’t be made to forget” anything once recorded on any of its innumerable servers. “This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cell phone cameras, free photo and video web-hosts, and perhaps most important of all, a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private”. And let me add: the choice between the public and the private is slipping out of people’s hands, with the people’s enthusiastic cooperation and deafening applause. A present-day Etienne de la Boétie would be probably tempted to speak not of voluntary, but a DIY servitude…