Of all the ways the government has to watch us, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, best capture the visceral fear of the all-seeing surveillance state. Because drones are becoming increasingly tiny, inexpensive, and powerful, they could enable a new species of universal surveillance, turning our cities into a modern version of Bentham’s panopticon. But this essay, written for the criminal justice symposium issue of the JCRED, is not about the alarming consequences of surveillance technology. Instead, it seeks to explore whether there is anything useful to be learned from the possibility of continuous mass surveillance. Not just useful in terms of solving crime or combating terrorism, but rather in reassessing the balance of power between the state and the people.
The system we have now — which privileges the right to privacy inside the home over the right to be secure against coercive police-citizen encounters — places the burden of police intrusion disproportionately on the poor and on minorities. While there are many good arguments that can be made in defense of privacy, they cannot be fairly assessed when state power is implemented in such an unbalanced way. So what I am suggesting is a thought experiment: Let us imagine that the government could use drones to monitor our every move out of doors. If it were found to be cost-effective and productive, could drone surveillance supplant profiling and other police practices that make members of specific communities feel singled out and humiliated? Might this actually be preferable?
I am not seriously proposing that we should all stop worrying and love the drone. But maybe this kind of faceless, technological surveillance could be implemented in a way that might be less error-prone, less arbitrary and discriminatory than what we have now. If nothing else, drones allow us to imagine a more egalitarian system of government information-gathering, one that does not fall so disproportionately and so hard on the millions who never really had any privacy in the first place.