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Flying into trouble?

March 27, 2009

Two recent stories of the cancellation of airborne surveillance programs should remind us that the route to a surveillance society is not an inevitable technological trajectory.

You don't see that very often! An airborne DEA surveillance plane (Photo by Schweizer Aircraft/MCT).

You don't see that very often! An airborne DEA surveillance plane (Photo by Schweizer Aircraft/MCT).

One is a classic tale of secret budgets disguising incompetence and disorganisation rather than efficient espionage. The US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) has ended an experimental air surveillance program, following almost total equipment failure. The planes, in short, didn’t fly, or didn’t fly much. Almost $15 million US down the drain, and no accountability because this was an ultra-secret, need-to-know, maximum deniability, ‘black earmark’ project…

The other is a more courageous story of a government finally standing up to the pressure or its larger ‘allies’, and the fear-mongering PR of arms companies. In this case, the Australian government has withdrawn from the BAMS Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program. It has cost the country $15 Million AUS, but this will save almost $1 Billion AUS. It also puts a small dent in the massive expansion of UAVs, now being used everywhere from the skies of Afghanistan to the streets of Liverpool. This decision did not make the military-industrial complex very happy and the story in The Australian shows clear evidence of corporate PR spin at work – the emotional blackmail of claiming that this decision could cost Australian lives in the event of more bushfires (or in other stories, it would leave Australia open to terrorism).

Global Hawk (USAF)

Global Hawk (USAF)

Even in a recession, governments will find it harder and harder to stand up to this kind of public pressure from the growing security economy – all the companies grown fat on the War on Terror that have the ear of the military and are backed by US-led consortia. It is to their credit that the Australian government has not given in – as for the US DEA, well, that is the opposite lesson – secrecy and the assumption of necessity can lead to massively wasteful state procurement and an absence of real security. The question is whether either lesson will prompt wider leaning…

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