Monday, 25 January 2010

Stranger than fiction

Last night, as those who follow my Twitter account will have noticed, I watched the first episode of Season 8 of 24. It's an amazing show, not only for its revolutionary and continued use of real time as a storytelling device, but also because of the action set-pieces and the outstanding performances of the cast.

However, it's let down by the fact that it's propaganda, as both A Very British Dude and Johann Hari, amongst others, have pointed out before me. It is pretty much a recipe for the glorification of torture and spreading the message that "opposed to the United States" is part and parcel of the definition of terrorism. One upside to this, however, is that in portraying the dark underbelly of the intelligence world, even in propagandised form, it offers hints at what's happening in the real world.

What caught my attention in particular last night was the show's use of "drones" as part of CTU's surveillance upgrade for the latest series. A "drone" is, essentially, a mobile surveillance camera. The creators of 24 gave it some optional extras, such as anti-ballistic missile technology, but the central purpose is obvious: spying. We've seen them before, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And now, it seems, they are headed for Great Britain;
Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the ­"routine" monitoring of antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.

The arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which produces a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for war zones, is adapting the military-style planes for a consortium of government agencies led by Kent police.

Documents from the South Coast Partnership, a Home Office-backed project in which Kent police and others are developing a national drone plan with BAE, have been obtained by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act.

They reveal the partnership intends to begin using the drones in time for the 2012 Olympics. They also indicate that police claims that the technology will be used for maritime surveillance fall well short of their intended use – which could span a range of police activity – and that officers have talked about selling the surveillance data to private companies. A prototype drone equipped with high-powered cameras and sensors is set to take to the skies for test flights later this year.
And there, if ever it was needed, is the addendum to my argument about the increasing repression of the British state. We're now to receive the same treatment as the "insurgents" in the Middle East, with the added pleasure that we're paying for the increasing restraint on our ability to dissent. Oh, and that the intelligence gained on us (at our expense) will be sold to the highest bidder for marketing purposes.

Just when you think somebody's bound to pull the curtain back and reveal the whole thing to be a practical joke, it gets worse. Johann Hari is kind enough to explain why the age of the killer robot isn't a sci-fi fantasy anymore;
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, they had no robots as part of their force. By the end of 2005, they had 2400. Today, they have 12,000, carrying out 33,000 missions a year. A report by the US Joint Forces Command says autonomous robots will be the norm on the battlefield within twenty years.

The NATO forces now depend on a range of killer-robots, largely designed by the British Ministry of Defence labs privatized by Tony Blair in 2001. Every time you hear about a “drone attack” against Afghanistan or Pakistan, that’s an unmanned robot dropping bombs on human beings. Push a button and it flies away, kills, and comes home. Its robot-cousin on the battlefields below is called SWORDS: a human-sized robot that can see 360 degrees around it and fire its machine-guns at any target it “chooses.” Fox News proudly calls it “the G.I. of the twenty-first century.” And billions are being spent on the next generation of warbots, who will leave these models looking like a ZX Spectrum or the bulky box on which you used to play Pong.

At the moment, most are controlled by a soldier – often 7500 miles away – with a control panel. But insurgents are always inventing new ways to block the signal from the control centre, which causes the robot to shut down and ‘die.’ So the military is building ‘autonomy’ into the robots: if they lose contact, they start to make their own decisions, in line with a pre-determined code.

This is “one of the most fundamental changes in the history of human warfare,” according to P.W. Singer, a former analyst for the Pentagon and the CIA. In his must-read book ‘Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Defence in the Twenty-First century’, he warns: “Humanity has started to engineer technologies that are fundamentally different from all before. Our creations are now acting in and upon the world around us.”

Humans have been developing weapons that enabled us to kill at ever-greater distances and in ever-greater numbers for millennia, from the longbow to the cannon to the machine-gun to the nuclear bomb. But these robots mark a different stage. The earlier technologies made it possible for humans to decide to kill in more “sophisticated” ways – but once you programme and unleash an autonomous robot, the war isn’t fought by you any more: it’s fought by the machine.
This does not bode well, especially with another front in the War on Terror opening. We have now reached a point where our governments can use exactly the same technology with which they are waging illegal wars for the control of markets and resources as tools to suppress their own people.

Against this, the only weapon in our arsenal is defiance. Over a thousand people took over Trafalgar Square with exactly such a sentiment on Saturday. This protest centred around the fact that increasing numbers of photographers are being "questioned and then subjected to a search, usually under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (S44.)," "despite a Home Office Circular in September that made it clear they should not be used to target photographers." In staging such a protest, these people became precisely the type of "domestic extremists" that new drones will be used against as a matter of "routine," aptly demonstrating that all those opposed to a police or surveillance state are fighting the same battle.
Further actions, such as Flashpoint 2010: Mass Photography Shoot Out, are vital not only in challenging the legislation already in place but also in the broader struggle against state authoritarianism. Long may the resistance continue.