Mostly Cloudy With Occasional Drones In The Afternoon

Marseille, the second largest city in France, has a crime problem. “Account settlements,” as the French call them, regularly make the national news. Some guy, often “known to the police,” is machine-gunned at close range by some other guys with AK-47s, often on motorcycles, in broad daylight. TV footage shows a pockmarked car. It’s how gangs settle their accounts for drug deals or other issues that haven’t quite panned out. In polite conversation, you often hear, “Let them kill each other.”

But then two men got gunned down within hours of each other on September 5. It brought the “account settlements” this year to 15. One of the victims was Adrien Anigo. He’d been nailed in 2006 for having rented a car that was then used by three accomplices in a post office robbery (La Poste is also a bank). His father, José Anigo, who has been associated with the criminal “milieu” of Marseille, is a former soccer star and the current president of the soccer club Olympique Marseille.

A wave of national handwringing ensued. Interior Minister Manuel Valls called for a “national pact” to end drug trafficking. “Now everyone has to sit down around a table to give hope again to the people of Marseille,” he said. The local government announced a roundtable about security. The city’s elected officials would participate. President François Hollande, in St. Petersburg for the G20, promised more resources and “results,” but it would take “some time” to “extirpate trafficking and particularly drug trafficking.”

His predecessor Nicholas Sarkozy had made similar promises. A year ago, the newly elected Socialist government ballyhooed its plan to tamp down on violence in Marseille. It spoke of a “strategic recapture.” It would deploy an additional 230 gendarmes (attached to the military) and officers of the national police. Certain hot areas in the north and south of the city were declared “priority zones.” And a month ago, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, along with other ministers, showed up and promised 20 additional police detectives.

Marseille’s murder rate of 5.3 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants is more than five times the national average. So this is urgent.

For perspective: The murder rate in the US last year was 4.7. San Francisco, where I live, is known to be relatively safe, and not very many tourists get murdered, and that’s what counts because the city lives off tourists. Outside of four homicide pockets, you can generally walk around at night without having to duck for cover. San Francisco’s murder rate in 2012 was 8.4 – up 36% from 2011.

So Marseille, by American standards, isn’t exactly dangerous. But now it’s in the process of deploying a new tool in its fight against “insecurity”: drones. Purpose? Systematic aerial surveillance by day or night of certain hot areas of housing projects to spy on drug dealers, and on anyone else who happens to be there.

This is not a right-wing idea. It was instigated by Eugène Caselli, former executive at the banking group Caisse d’Épargne, ranking official of the governing Socialist Party, mayoral candidate in Marseille, and president of the “urban community” of Marseille Provence Métropole, which groups together Marseille and 17 communities around it.

His proposal is moving forward. Police chief Jean-Paul Bonnetain has jumped on the bandwagon. The General Council of the Bouches-du-Rhône Department is willing to fund up to €1 million. A first in France, where drones are still the prerogative of the military. The drones would provide a way to observe “the most complex situations,” Caselli said in an interview on the radio network, Europe1.

“When the police obtains intelligence on gangs of drug dealers and on how they implant themselves in the projects, and how they move around to do their dealing, this is when to send in the drones,” he said. Everything is filmed, and it’s better than a classic police stake-out.”

Each drone would cost only €50,000. Piloted from a distance of up to one kilometer (two-thirds of a mile), they’d fly at an altitude of 150 meters (500 feet) and wouldn’t be perceptible at night.

Novadem, headquartered in neighboring Aix-en-Provence, is in line to get the deal. The drones would be part of le made in France. The startup specializes in drones “for civilian and military markets,” according to its website. It’s subsidized by the Ministry of Research, the Direction Générale de l’Armement (military procurement agency), and various development agencies. The company already sells drones to the French military.

“They’re very easily transportable by one person,” said co-founder and director Pascal Zunino. “You can deploy them in less than a minute to go check out a situation.” Other advantages? “Instead of a fixed camera, which is always in the same place, a drone is never in the same place. That’s what allows you to break habits and have various points of view on a situation, by day and night,” he explained.

Obstacles remain. France would need to establish a national legal framework for using drones. And law-abiding people are worried that these drones would invade their privacy – but privacy concerns have not yet proven to be an obstacle to the widespread deployment of surveillance technologies.

Marseille is not even on the forefront – neither in crimes nor in drones. That honor goes to cities around the world, including American cities like Oakland, in Alameda County, across the Bay from San Francisco. Its murder rate in 2012 was 32.7 per 100,000, up 26% from 2011. Six times higher than Marseille’s!

So Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern hatched a plan last October to add drones to his toolkit for some “proactive policing” – for example, to scour large areas for pot farms, he said. Worried citizens have interpreted this to mean that the drones would be deployed to spy on high-crime neighborhoods and tail people cheaply for hours at a time. Oakland police tested different models. On their wish list: something that can fly for hours at an altitude of 400 feet and comes with high-definition cameras, license plate readers, thermal imaging devices, and so on.

The proposal smacked into resistance from the ACLU of Northern California. It observed on its blog that “when law enforcement has powerful and dangerous tools in its arsenal, it will use them.” Drones raised “enormous privacy concerns” and could “easily be abused.” Further:

One of the reasons cited by Sheriff Ahern in support of drones is that they are much cheaper than other forms of aerial surveillance…. But the relative inexpensiveness of electronic surveillance is also precisely why strong safeguards need to be in place. When the police have to mount elaborate and costly foot and squad patrols to follow a suspect 24/7, the expenditure of resources serves as a deterrent to abuse; it forces the police to limit their surveillance to instances when it is actually necessary. Drones permit the police to surveil people at all hours of the day and, apparently, at 1/30 the cost of other forms of aerial surveillance. The natural deterrent to abuse goes away, and invites abuse.

But even the ACLU doesn’t oppose the use of drones. It just wants “a transparent and democratic process for debating that question” and “rigid safeguards and accountability mechanisms.”

Other cities in the US have already taken the leap on surveillance drones. Electronic Frontier Foundation, as a result of its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, received “a trove of documents“ from the Federal Aviation Administration about public and private use of drones around the country, “including where they’re flying, why they’re being used, and what their capabilities are.” Some delectable tidbits:

The North Little Rock Police Department, for instance, wrote that their SR30 helicopter-type drone “can carry day zoom cameras, infrared cameras, or both simultaneously.” Not to be outdone, the Seattle Police Department’s drone comes with four separate cameras, offering thermal infrared video, low light “dusk-dawn” video, and a 1080p HD video camera attachment. The Miami-Dade Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety have employed drones capable of both daytime and nighttime video cameras.

Surveillance technology has a way of being unstoppable. As the Snowden revelations have shown, once pandemic surveillance – collecting any data on anyone by electronic means, storing it forever, and mining it on a constant basis – became a low-cost affair, corporations and government agencies, often in cahoots with each other, have jumped on it. Now it’s standard operating procedure. And part of a promising growth business: Big Data.

Privacy has been traded in for corporate profits, governmental controls, spookily personalized ads, and harebrained hype about increased security. There has been some worldwide grumbling, including by your humble servant. But we’re already up to our earlobes in a nearly flawless surveillance society. And it will get more flawless. Ten years from now, only a few recalcitrant figures will even remember – with a wistful smile – what it was like before, in the era when “privacy” still meant something.

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