The Internet’s infatuation with Wednesday’s story of the runaway blimp lasted about as long as the blimp did before being taken down in Pennsylvania. The (wretched) third Republican debate soon took over the news cycle, leaving the blimp a brief trending twitter hashtag. The blimp didn’t injure or kill anyone, though it did destroy power lines, leaving some 15,000 people in the dark.
The blimp is supposedly part of missile defense for Washington, DC. It has no arms, just radar in order to detect incoming threats on the east coast. If the blimp’s purpose is just that, it’s relatively low on the list of objectionable government floaty things. But it’s difficult not to squirm when you know about any sort of constant military or federal law enforcement presence hovering over American cities. Difficult, too, not to wonder whether the blimp’s purpose is purely about missile defense. And if that sounds paranoid, perhaps it is. It’s not, however, a paranoia without foundation.
Other vehicles hanging out in American airspace are not flashy enough to warrant even an afternoon’s media attention. They are, however, certainly more worth casting a worried eye upon.
In the last few months, more media outlets – even beyond go-to sites like Ars Technica and techdirt – began reporting on the worrisome nature of the Stingray, the generic for the most popular version of the small devices that police (and the IRS, and the DEA, and the FBI, and the US Marshals) can and do use to spy on people. Basically, Stingrays tell your phone that they’re a cell tower, and law enforcement uses this to get your information.
Officially, domestic versions can only track things such as incoming and outgoing calls, and more alarmingly, the physical location of the phone. We do, however, know that they could be tweaked to listen in on call content.
Due to some solid reporting and criticism, as well as some judges who appear to know how to do their jobs, federal use of Stingrays will now need a search warrant. At least, that is what the Department of Justice decided back in September. In order to get said warrant, disclosure will also have to be made that the device to be used is specifically a Stingray (or similar).
This is good, but it is insufficient. Local law enforcement are still using Stingrays. And they are only getting better in quality. New versions of Stingrays can more easily connect to the harder to hack 4G networks, making it easier to spy on phone and Internet use. According to Motherboard, these devices use Facebook and other apps to get in, now that other forms of tracking are more detectable.
There are also still unanswered questions about the reported use of tracking devices in the air. Marshal use “dirt boxes” – a Stingray by another brand name than their Harris Corp – in Cessna airplanes. Stories about Stingrays that leak tend to focus on individual crime investigations and tracking. Dirt boxes cover wide areas and connect to the phones of thousands of people for each plane flight. Information as to what the Marshals are doing with this data is spotty.
Another thing to worry about when you gaze up at the fluffy clouds is FBI surveillance flights. The FBI is being less cagey about information here. Or rather, after journalists and observers figured out that the FBI was flying over Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri during police protests during the last 18 months, the FBI admitted it was doing so. They use shell companies in order to hide this fact, but now that the information has come out, the FBI is willing to share. Director James Comey sounded generously transparent when he explained to Michigan Sen. John Conyers’ query over the planes, “We do not use planes for mass surveillance…. So we have a small number of airplanes — I actually wish we had more — that we use to follow people in places where it’s hard to follow them on foot or in a car."
It’s not mass! Great! Just for people who are already suspected of crimes. It’s fine. Airplanes have existed for 110 years. But Stingrays have not. And as a techdirt writer savvily noted, the FBI may say this is targeted, presumably lawful surveillance (and mass observation of unique moments of civil unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson), but they have all the tech necessary for mass surveillance if they so choose.
And we haven’t even gotten to drones yet. We’ve got eight of them on the border (though there used to be ten, so maybe that’s progress.). Police in North Dakota famously used a Predator Drone back in 2011 to catch a cattle thief. That drone was just for surveillance, but earlier this year North Dakota legalized equipping drones with Tasers. Police departments the nation over are branching out more and more with drone use. Some of them need not weapons, but surveillance tools such as facial recognition tech.
The FAA restricts non-governmental drones. Among other regulations, Â they decided so-called hobby drones should fly under 400 feet, and that their operators must remain in sight at all times. But the privacy consequences of a country of drones is far from being hammered out legally or socially. Hell, the American legal system was never great with even airplanes and helicopter restrictions, mostly because new technology always serves as an excuse to argue that no, no, the Fourth Amendment was never meant to protect against that. Bad Supreme Court decisions were made in the ‘80s in order to justify, say, having a helicopter creep 400 feet above a property in order to check out an illicit marijuana grow.
Though folks at serious-minded places like the ACLU are worried about a future in which drones are truly normalized, we’re not yet living in one of those unsubtle surveillance societies you see in a dystopian novel or the United Kingdom. So we relax. We always think we’re acting unobserved in our wide open American spaces. But our watchers usually stay politely in the background, or flying quietly out of sight.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.