Monday, December 8, 2008

Toward A Transparent Society

Wired's Danger Room blog reports:
On Saturday, a Predator drone touched down at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. The unmanned spy plane will provide eyes in the sky for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which currently employs three Predators to monitor the U.S.-Mexican border.


Complying with civilian flight rules remains a tricky issue for the pilotless aircraft. Aviation Week reports that Customs and Border Protection has yet to reach agreement with the FAA on the flight restrictions for the Predator that will operate along the Canadian border. Initially, that drone will be controlled from North Dakota; its surveillance feed will be piped to operations centers in Washington, D.C., and Riverside, Calif.

As the technology behind these drones gets more powerful, cheaper, and easier to use, we'll have a quickly growing fleet of them patrolling our country's skies. And legal precedents thus far have indicated that similar aerial surveillance doesn't bring up any constitutional problems. So this is one of the perfect ways for big brother to keep tabs on all of us.

In more positive news, Cato @ Liberty approvingly notes:
The President-elect’s Web site announced a new feature on Friday, called Your Seat at the Table: “The Obama-Biden Transition Team will be hearing from many groups over the next several weeks. On this page, you can track these meetings, view documents provided to the Transition, and leave comments for the team.”

Says a memo from transition head John Podesta, itself posted online, “[A]ny documents from official meetings with outside organizations will be posted on our website for people to review and comment on.”

This is a very good start at transparency. John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation wonders what this might look like across the entire executive branch. If the default rule were online disclosure of documents submitted to government agencies, that would make a big change in the conduct of the public’s business.

Given the direction technology is headed, it seems fundamentally impractical to me to even attempt to maintain privacy as we currently understand it. Rather than fighting a quixotic battle to keep the government from engaging in increasingly sophisticated surveillance, we should demand that the government open itself up every bit as much as our lives are being opened up. So bring on the domestic spy drones, just make their feeds publicly accessible on the Internet.

For an extensive argument in favor of such a solution, check out David Brin's excellent book The Transparent Society.

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