Surveillance and Annihilation

Grégoire Chamayou

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

It's kind of like having God overhead. And lightning comes down in the form of a Hellfire.

—Colonel Theodore Osowski

Seeking the eye of God,
I saw only a socket,
huge, black and bottomless
where night which inhabits it
sends rays over the world
and always thickens.

—Gérard de Nerval, Les Chimères

The eye of God, with its overhanging gaze, embraces the entire world. Its vision is more than just sight: beneath the skin of phenomena it can search hearts and minds. Nothing is opaque to it. Because it is eternity, it embraces the whole of time, the past as well as the future. And its knowledge is not just knowledge. Omniscience implies omnipotence.

In many respects, the drone dreams of achieving through technology a miniature equivalence to that fictional eye of God. As one soldier writes, "Using the all-seeing eye, you will find out who is important in a network, where they live, where they get their support from, where their friends are." Then all you have to do is "wait till these people have gone down a lonely stretch of road and take them out with a Hellfire missile."

The promoters of drones emphasize that these machines have "revolutionized our ability to provide a constant stare against our enemy." Therein, it seems, lies their fundamental contribution: a revolution in sighting. But in what sense? Their innovations can be listed as several major principles.

1. The principle of persistent surveillance or permanent watch.

Freed from the constraints that a pilot's body imposed, a drone can remain in the air for a long time. For twenty-four hours its gaze can remain constant; a mechanical eye has no lids. While the machine patrols, its operators, on the ground, watch the screen in eight-hour shifts. The removal of crews from the cockpit has made it possible for their work to be thoroughly reorganized, and it is really this socialized reduction of the need for human eyes, over and above the technological powers of the machine, that ensures a "constant geo-spatial 'overwatch'" by the institutional eye.

2. The principle of a totalization of perspectives or a synoptic viewing.

The second major principle makes the watch total as well as persistent. This is the notion of "wide area surveillance": see everything, all the time. This extension of the field of vision is likely to be entrusted to new and revolutionary optical devices still in the process of being developed. Equipped with such systems of synoptic imagery, a drone would have at its disposal not just one but dozens of high-resolution microcameras facing in every direction, like the multiple facets of the eye of a fly. A software system would aggregate the various images in real time into a single overall view that could be seen in detail when necessary. The result would be the equivalent of a high-resolution satellite image, on the scale of an entire town or region, but transmitted both live and in streaming video. The teams of operators could, if they wished, zoom in on a particular area or a particular individual at any time. Equipped with such a system, a single hovering machine would be the equivalent of a network of video surveillance cameras positioned over an entire town. The drone would become "all-seeing."

In practice, however, there is still a long way to go. A current military report declares that existing "all-seeing" devices are neither efficient nor well adapted, with insufficient resolution, particularly for efficiently tracking individuals, and with worrying deficiencies in their locational system. But what concerns me at the moment are the main principles of this kind of reasoning, without regard to their present efficacy.

3. The principle of creating an archive or film of everyone's life.

Optical surveillance is not limited to the present time. It also assumes the important function of recording and archiving. "The idea behind persistent surveillance is to make a movie of a city-size area, with the goal of tracking all the moving vehicles and people," says John Marion, director of the persistent surveillance program for Logos Technologies. Once such a movie of every life and everything is completed, it could be rerun thousands of times, each time focusing on a different person, zooming in on him or her so as to reexamine that person's own particular history. One could select scenes, rewind, replay, or fast-forward, navigating as one wished through not only space but also time. Once an event had taken place, one could backtrack to study its genealogy. For example, "if a whole town could be surveilled at once, . . . car bombs could be traced back to their points of origin." The total archive would ensure the retrospective traceability of all movements and all their past histories.

However, all this would presuppose capacities to store, index, and analyze data that the systems presently in place do not possess. The press informs us that in the course of 2009 alone, American drones generated the equivalent of twenty-four years' worth of video recording. And the new ARGUS-IS wide-area surveillance system promises "to generate several terabytes [of data] per minute, hundreds of times greater than previous-generation sensors." But that is precisely the problem: a "data overload," an excess or avalanche of data, the profusion of which will end up making the information unusable.

In an effort to resolve this problem, the Pentagon went to the sports stadium. The production of football broadcasts has resulted in a variety of innovative technologies. In every game, dozens of cameras film the players from every angle. Every sequence is instantly indexed on a database. Thanks to efficient software, the control room staff can run replays from a variety of angles while displaying statistics on the screen. As Larry James, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, explains, "When it comes to collecting and analyzing data, sports broadcasters are far ahead of the military." After sending emissaries into ESPN's studios, the U.S. military decided to acquire a modified version of the software that it used. After all, their concerns are similar: "While sportscasters want to collect and catalog video on a specific player or a winning shot, the military wants the same capacity to follow insurgents and bombings." As Walter Benjamin long ago predicted, future warfare would present a new "face which will permanently replace soldierly qualities by those of sports; all action will lose its military character, and war will assume the countenance of record-setting."

The next stage in technology would be to make the indexing of images automatic. Instead of having to enter "tags" or metadata manually, this painstaking task would be entrusted to machines. But for this to be possible, there would have to be software capable of describing things and actions, that is, automatically transcribing aggregates of pixels into names, verbs, and propositions. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funds cognitive scientists to conduct this type of research, which is designed to construct "integrated cognitive systems for automatized video-surveillance."

We should imagine eventual scribe-machines, flying robotized clerks that, in real time, would record the smallest actions occurring in the world below—as if, in parallel to the life of human beings, the cameras that already capture animated images would now set about producing a circumstantial account of them. But those lines of text, a meticulous chronicle of every fact and gesture, would at the same time constitute something more: a great index, an informative catalog of an immense video library in which everyone's life would become retrospectively researchable.

4. The principle of data fusion.

Drones have not only eyes but also ears and many other organs. For example, "Predator and Reaper drones also can interpret electronic communications from radios, cell phones or other communication devices." The archival aim would be to fuse together these different layers of information and pin them all together so as to combine in a single item all the informational facets of one particular event: for example, associating a particular telephone call with a particular video sequence and particular GPS coordinates. This is the aim of data fusion.

5. The principle of the schematization of forms of life.

Derek Gregory notes that the ability to integrate data produced by a variety of sources—"combining the where, the when, and the who"—into a three-dimensional array "replicates the standard time-geography diagrams developed by the Swedish geographer Torsten Hägerstrand in the 1960s and 1970s." This extremely inventive development in human geography set out to draw maps of a new kind, spatio-temporal graphs that would show the course of lives in three dimensions, with all their cycles and itineraries but also their accidents and deviations. In a cruel perversion, this idea of a cartography of lives has today become one of the main epistemic bases of armed surveillance. The aim is to be able "to follow several individuals through various social networks in order to establish a form or pattern of life that conforms with the paradigm of 'information based on activity,' which today constitutes the heart of the counter-insurgency doctrine."

Contrary to what one might imagine, the main objectives of these continuous surveillance devices is not so much to tail individuals already known, but rather to spot the emergence of suspect elements based on their unusual behavior. Because this model of information is predicated on an analysis of behavior patterns rather than the recognition of nominal identities, it claims to be able, paradoxically, to "identify" individuals who remain anonymous—in other words, to describe them by behavior that reflects a particular profile. This is identification that is not individual but generic.

6. The principle of the detection of anomalies and preemptive anticipation.

Images are scanned in order to pick out, amid masses of activity, events that seem pertinent to the focus on security. These are detectable because of their anomaly or irregularity. Any behavior that diverges from the web of habitual activities may indicate a threat. "According to an Air Force intelligence analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity, analyzing imagery captured by drones is like a cross between police work and social science. The focus is on understanding 'patterns of life,' and deviations from those patterns. For example, if a normally busy bridge suddenly empties, that might mean the local population knows a bomb is planted there. 'You're now getting into a culture study,' says the analyst...[You're] looking at people's lives." Gregory sums this up as follows: "Essentially, the task consists in distinguishing between 'normal' and 'abnormal' activity in a kind of militarized rhythm-analysis that takes on increasingly automatized forms."

Automatic detection of abnormal behavior operates by predicting the possible developments resulting from different types of behavior. Having noted the characteristic features of a familiar sequence in a particular situation, analysts claim to be able to make probable inferences about future developments, and intervene so as to prevent those developments from ever occurring. Thus recognition of particular scenarios can serve as the basis for early threat detection.

Predicting the future is based on knowledge of the past. The archives of lives constitute the basis for claims that, by noting regularities and anticipating recurrences, it is possible both to predict the future and to change the course of it by taking preemptive action. Such claims are clearly founded upon very fragile epistemological bases, which in no way prevents them from being extremely dangerous but, on the contrary, ensures that they are.

The names given to these devices are very revealing: Argus and Gorgon Stare. In Greek mythology, Argus, the figure with a hundred eyes, was also known as Panoptes, "the one who sees all." Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, analyzed by Michel Foucault, was originally an architectural contraption. In a carrying forward of this pattern, in recent decades cities have been stuffed with video surveillance cameras. Surveillance by means of drones is more economical, as it involves no spatial alterations, nor does it require anything to be affixed to walls. Air and sky are all that are needed. As in the film Eyeborgs, the cameras are detached from walls and thereupon acquire wings and weapons. We are entering into the era of winged and armed panoptics. As for the gaze of the Gorgon, it turned to stone all those unfortunate enough to encounter it. It was a gaze that killed. At this point, it is a matter no longer of surveillance and punishment but of surveillance and annihilation.

David Rohde, a New York Times journalist kidnapped in 2008 and held in Waziristan for seven months, was one of the first Westerners to describe the effects that this lethal continuous surveillance produced upon the populations subjected to it. Evoking a "hell on earth," he added: "The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death."

The accounts collected in this region by the authors of a 2012 report titled "Living Under the Drones" are in a similar vein:

They're always surveying us, they're always over us, and you never know when they're going to strike and attack.

Everyone is scared all the time. When we're sitting together to have a meeting, we're scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We're always scared. We always have this fear in our head.

Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don't see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.

Children, grown-up people, women, they are terrified. . . . They scream in terror.

One inhabitant of Datta Khel—a place hit more than thirty times by drones in the course of the past three years— says that his neighbors "have lost their mental balance . . . are just locked in a room. Just like you lock people in prison, they are locked in a room."

Drones are indeed petrifying. They inflict mass terror upon entire populations. It is this—over and above the deaths, the injuries, the destruction, the anger, and the grieving—that is the effect of permanent lethal surveillance: it amounts to a psychic imprisonment within a perimeter no longer defined by bars, barriers, and walls, but by the endless circling of flying watchtowers up above.

translated from the French by Janet Lloyd

Copyright © 2013 by La Fabrique Editions. This excerpt originally appeared in A Theory of the Drone, published in January 2015 by The New Press, and is used here with permission.