by Mary Harrington
Monday, 9
May 2022
Spotted
16:34

Chinese-style drone surveillance is coming to America

Law enforcement is already using tech to extend the reach of policing
by Mary Harrington
Credit: Getty

The leading edge in authoritarian tech usually comes dressed as exciting developments in artificial intelligence. Its typical face is Chinese: last week, researchers at Zheihang University released footage that showed a swarm of ten drones successfully navigating a forest without human control. Fascinating in the abstract — but the research, published in the digital magazine Science Robotics last week, also discusses the challenges that need addressing for the drones to ‘catch up with’ a human ‘target’.

Some possible applications have been seen recently in footage emerging from Zero Covid China. There, we saw dystopian clips of drones equipped with loudspeakers, hovering at balconies where citizens were singing in protest and instructing the singers to “Curb your thirst for freedom”.


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Surely, though, this wouldn’t go beyond the borders of China?

Think again. Since 2018, the southern Californian town of Chula Vista has been steadily incorporating drones into its law enforcement, using a Trump-era ordinance aimed at exploring how drones can be integrated into American life. This was used to grant a special waiver to regulations governing how far drones can fly, and such devices are now routinely despatched as ‘first responders’ when someone contacts the Chula Vista police. Since 2021, drones have been able to cover the entire city. During the pandemic, they were equipped with speakers just like the Chinese ones — inviting questions about which set of authorities really is the trailblazer when it comes to robot policing.

Chula Vista authorities argue that using drones is in the interests of “de-escalation” — that is, their presence helps officers to judge when force is likely to be needed, meaning less risk of police violence against innocent citizens. Others are less convinced: the anti-authoritarian Activist Post claims that, contra official statements, these devices are routinely used for surveillance. And as the ACLU has noted, other states are already piloting similar programmes.

Nor is this is all just happening across the Atlantic. British law enforcement is already looking longingly at the power of tech to extend the reach of stretched policing. Several police departments already have partnerships with Ring, Amazon’s web-enabled surveillance doorbell product, while during the pandemic Derbyshire Police used drones to shame people who breached social distancing guidelines by watching the sun set on open hillsides miles from anyone else.

A spokesman for Impossible Aerospace, which manufactures the Chula Vista drones, is under no illusions about Chinese-style drone surveillance staying in China. The company’s CEO, Spencer Gore said:

What we saw in China, and what we’re probably going to see around the world, is using drones with cameras and loudspeakers to fly around to see if people are gathering where they shouldn’t be, and telling them to go home. It seems a little Orwellian, but this could save lives.
- Spencer Gore

Well, that’s okay then.

The reality is that the development and application of autonomous machines, artificial intelligence and surveillance tech is following more or less in the same trajectory across the whole developed world. If there’s a difference, it’s that for local cultural reasons the Chinese version is being rolled out without the Western gestures toward individual autonomy.

In truth, China’s tech dystopia and the one emerging now in the West are two facets of the same transformation. And whether in China or the West, it’s this technological vanguard that represents the true face of post-liberalism.

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Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
6 months ago

In future, a little drone with a loudspeaker and voice-recognition will follow everyone, correcting a person’s use or misuse of personal pronouns. It sounds a little Orwellian, but it has the potential to prevent huge amounts of trauma and – since words are violence – could help to save lives.

Ray Mullan
Ray Mullan
6 months ago

I wonder how long before Americans start taking pot shots at the things. I certainly would if I had legal ownership of a gun.

Has anyone else ever had a perfectly fine walk ruined by some gapshite’s drone buzzing overhead? I guess I’ll just have to work on my aim with rocks.

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
6 months ago
Reply to  Ray Mullan

Any that come too close might be within range of one of the better water pistols, even.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
6 months ago

There is a way to fight this – and it’s both: incredibly simple and nigh on impossible. The answer is going to sound glib, but it truly is the way out: master the tech, become a tecchie. As the experience of the American Indians shows, you cannot use bought in tech to fight superior tech. You need to participate in the creation of tech. And if you can do this, if you can create tech, in most circumstances, you can still fight, still compete even if you are fighting superior tech. But you cannot do this if you are a mere user – you will lose even with superior tech.

Last edited 6 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Al M
Al M
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Or master the pump action shotgun, like Kyle Rees in The Terminator.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

How do you stop yourself getting sucked in to the inevitable temptation to use your tech to consolidate your power and dominate others who lack mastery of it?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

If the question is directed at me individually, I meditate: Ohm, munny, munny, munny…

If it’s a general point about human behaviour, well, you don’t stop yourself, you do the domination.

Richard Hopkins
Richard Hopkins
6 months ago

As Philip K. d**k observed, “Reality, by itself, becomes a story by Philip K. d**k.”

Leon Shivamber
Leon Shivamber
6 months ago

Mary, your headline is technically correct, but essentially fear-mongering hyperbole. Yes, a few jurisdictions have been adopting the use of drones in supporting public-safety, but a proper reading of how technology gets adopted by law enforcement in the USA would suggest a long complicated road ahead before the kind of privacy-busting Chinese-type surveillance becomes common.
Indeed, many local regulators have been writing laws to limit drone use generally, and for law enforcement specifically. Technology adoption nation-wide is much easier for federal agencies, such as the FBI and DEA, but not so when one considers the state and local jurisdictional law enforcement. Just ask those who have been interested in adopting speed cameras, for example, across America. Has not been easy or fast, and unlikely to accelerate unless an event occurs which acts as a catalyst to promote the technology.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago
Reply to  Leon Shivamber

But, such an event is bound to happen. The assassination of a beloved President, massive anti-war protests, various riots, horribly destructive terrorist attacks, a pandemic. Throughout my long-ish life there’s been a constant stream of them.
There will always be subsets of people who want the opposite of what you and I want; worry-worts, hypocondriacs, busy-bodies and tech-heads, providing cover for the politicians and, long before they can be voted out of office, the drones will already be up.

Al M
Al M
6 months ago

I can just imagine what Derbyshire Plod were up to: Put down your coffee … you have 20 seconds to comply!

Samuel Turner
Samuel Turner
6 months ago

Wait… Is this article anti-post-liberalism? I thought Unherd was a post-liberal magazine…