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Will "Persistent Surveillance" Turn U.S. into a Panopticon?

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Disturbing revelations about the breadth of spying by the U.S. government on its citizens and allies continue to emerge. In a recent post, I suggested that U.S. security officials never abandoned the concept of "Total Information Awareness," a program for intensive digital spying proposed and ostensibly withdrawn by the Pentagon shortly after 9/11.

Another Pentagon phrase that keeps popping up in my head is "persistent surveillance." I first heard this term while researching "The Drones Come Home," an article for the March issue of National Geographic Magazine. Predators, Global Hawks and other unmanned planes, or drones, were enabling U.S. armed forces to carry out continuous, 24/7 visual, infrared, radar and electronic monitoring of large regions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As this 2011 Pentagon report states, persistent surveillance, which like Total Information Awareness was inspired by 9/11, "facilitates the prediction of an adversary’s behavior and the formulation and execution of preemptive activities to deter or forestall anticipated adversary courses of action."

Incorporating data from conventional aircraft, satellites, balloons and towers as well as drones, persistent surveillance allows U.S. armed forces to predict enemy attacks and coordinate counter-strikes with greater precision than traditional methods.

Such surveillance can also help identify perpetrators of past attacks. For example, if militants blow up a U.S. convoy with an improvised explosive device, persistent surveillance data allow investigators to watch the whole plot unfold in reverse and track perpetrators back to their hideouts. Persistent surveillance turns an entire city into the equivalent of a convenience store monitored by security cameras.

One of the most detailed, candid discussions I have found of persistent surveillance is a 2009 master's thesis by Christina Fekkes of the Naval Postgraduate School. Fekkes began her paper by recalling the proposal of 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham to create a "panopticon," a prison whose inmates are monitored so thoroughly that they do not even contemplate misbehaving.

Fekkes writes: "The ideology behind panopticons was not fully appreciated during Bentham’s time. Ironically, two centuries later a parallel ideology of persistent surveillance is eagerly being sought by military strategists. Information gained through the use of persistent surveillance is believed essential for U.S. forces against adversarial challenges faced in twenty-first-century warfare."

As Fekkes and other analysts note, current persistent surveillance is far from perfect. Defense contractors are hence eagerly developing methods to make persistent surveillance systems cheaper, more user friendly and adaptable for different applications, such as border patrol and law-enforcement.

As I mentioned in a post last February, the Obama administration has also taken various steps—including proposed relaxation of federal aviation regulations--to make it easier for U.S. law enforcement agencies to deploy drones.

Do all these trends mean that persistent surveillance, developed by U.S. armed forces for fighting wars abroad, will eventually be applied to U.S. citizens as well? Are we all going to be living in the Pantopticon? Just a few months ago, I would have dismissed this prospect as implausible, but now I'm not so sure.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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