The Blair Writing Project

Assorted crap from an unstable mind...

Richard Blair

Richard Blair
Saginaw, Michigan, United States
March 24
Richard Blair is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Saginaw, Michigan. (Shorter: he doesn't have a real job at the moment.) Armed with a BA in journalism from New Mexico State University in the 1970’s, he promptly joined the U.S. Navy as a Machinist Mate in the USN's Submarine Service. Since then, he's written two books, as well as countless newspaper, online, and trade journal articles. When Richard isn’t practicing "The Artist's Way", and if the weather is warm, he can usually be found sprawled on a sandy beach in some exotic location such as New Jersey.


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DECEMBER 13, 2011 9:34AM

Six Cows and a Predator Drone

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Maybe the "black helicopter conspiracy nuts" were just ahead of their time.  When local U.S. law enforcement agencies start time sharing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with the Department of Homeland Security, perhaps it's time to pay attention.

Predator Drone Things are getting more than a little weird when science fiction becomes law enforcement fact.  We've become immune to news stories from the AfPak region where missiles launched from highly sophisticated UAVs, controlled half a world away, slam into a building where alleged bad guys are hiding out.  Of course, along with the alleged bad guys, there is almost always collateral damage [read: civilian casualties].   

It was only a matter of time before this technology became available to American law enforcement authorities.  In 2005, DHS requested funding from Congress to purchase and deploy UAVs, ostensibly for border control purposes.  When I say, "border patrol purposes", what does that bring to mind?  Hoards of illegal Mexicans storming the U.S. southern borders for drug running or tomato picking purposes?

You would only be half right. 

The United States has a northern border, as well.  Much of the American border with Canada is wide open space.  In fact, in much of the midwest U.S., until recent years about all that was necessary to get from one country to the next was to hop a small ranch style fence in the middle of nowhere.  Predator drones have put a cramp in that easy border crossing style, patrolling a vast stretch of unguarded border, from Minnesota to the State of Washington.

These UAVs are now apparently routinely called out by local law enforcement in border-neighboring states to assist in local law enforcement activities:

Armed with a search warrant, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went looking for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm in the early evening of June 23. Three men brandishing rifles chased him off, he said.

Janke knew the gunmen could be anywhere on the 3,000-acre spread in eastern North Dakota. Fearful of an armed standoff, he called in reinforcements from the state Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three other counties.

He also called in a Predator B drone.
Say what? 

How does a local sheriff go about doing that if his agency doesn't own one?  After all, Predator drones don't come cheap ($4.5M to $10M each).  What's the protocol for ringing up DHS, and requesting UAV surveillance?  And can you complain to your local constabulary and get the photographic goods on the neighbor who you suspect is letting his pooch poop on your newly seeded lawn?  

According to the L.A. Times article, the UAV that was called into duty to assist in resolving the Brossart farm incident was on its way back from a DHS border control mission, and had some fuel left to spare.  So, at the sheriff's request, DHS diverted the drone to support intelligence gathering for a law enforcement raid on the farm.  The next day, another drone was dedicated to the effort when the raid actually took place.

Suffice it to say that the Brossart's aren't the family next door.   WDAY in Fargo, ND has a great deal of accumulated background on the cow thieving perpetrators.   Lots of lawyers, guns, and money involved.  Maybe even a local militia or three.  I'm not going to pass judgement one way or another on the crimes / potential crimes and general weirdness involved, although hopefully the cows have been returned to their rightful owner.

What I am willing to pass judgement on is the militarization of law enforcement, and the continuing bluring of lines between military use of technology in foreign conflicts and using the same technology in domestic law enforcement.  The rules of engagement are different - or at least, they should be.

In the second decade of the 21st century, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that we live in a surveillance society.  After all, you can buy your very own mini-predator drone on for  $54.99 if you want to keep track of those pesky neighbors and their dog.  In fact, many would argue that the technology-enabled tools available to law enforcement authorities are a good thing, from tracking down online pedophiles to catching cow thieves in North Dakota. 

The basic question I want to pose is: Where should the line be drawn?  You can superimpose your own scenarios on Brossart farm story, whether we're talking about drone surveillance of cow thieves, unwarranted reading of your own email by a national security agency, tapping into your phone conversations, or even someone data mining your prescription medication refills

Progressives are fond of invoking the "slippery slope" of deteriorating privacy expectations in a technology enabled era.  Law-and-order types believe that the fourth amendment of the U.S. Consititution is soooooo pre-9/11.  Hey, if you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about, right?

But are we getting to the societal tipping point that Gattica and RoboCop appear plausible, perhaps even acceptable in polite company, no movie script required?  

I'm having a bit of a difficult time wrapping my head around the notion that such technology should be considered "standard issue" for every local law enforcement agency in America.  The potential for abuse is just too easy without some sort of oversight and judicial review / approval of individual circumstances and necessity.  

And I haven't even started discussing the robot prison guards that will keep an eye on you after your cow thieving ass has been nailed by a Predator drone...

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