Disturbing revelations about the breadth of spying by the U.S. government on its citizens and allies continue to emerge.
In a recent post, I suggested that U.S. security officials never abandoned the concept of “Total Information Awareness,” a program for intensive digital spying proposed and ostensibly withdrawn by the Pentagon shortly after 9/11.
Another Pentagon phrase that keeps popping up in my head is “persistent surveillance.” I first heard this term while researching “The Drones Come Home,” an article for the March issue of National Geographic Magazine. Predators, Global Hawks and other unmanned planes, or drones, were enabling U.S. armed forces to carry out continuous, 24/7 visual, infrared, radar and electronic monitoring of large regions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As this 2011 Pentagon report states, persistent surveillance, which like Total Information Awareness was inspired by 9/11, “facilitates the prediction of an adversary’s behavior and the formulation and execution of preemptive activities to deter or forestall anticipated adversary courses of action.”
Incorporating data from conventional aircraft, satellites, balloons and towers as well as drones, persistent surveillance allows U.S. armed forces to predict enemy attacks and coordinate counter-strikes with greater precision than traditional methods.
Such surveillance can also help identify perpetrators of past attacks. For example, if militants blow up a U.S. convoy with an improvised explosive device, persistent surveillance data allow investigators to watch the whole plot unfold in reverse and track perpetrators back to their hideouts. Persistent surveillance turns an entire city into the equivalent of a convenience store monitored by security cameras.
One of the most detailed, candid discussions I have found of persistent surveillance is a 2009 master’s thesis by Christina Fekkes of the Naval Postgraduate School. Fekkes began her paper by recalling the proposal of 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham to create a “panopticon,” a prison whose inmates are monitored so thoroughly that they do not even contemplate misbehaving.
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