Access to information is an important topic. Citizen access to information is critical if norms of democratic accountability are to have any meaning. At the same time, the Bill of Rights and a long series of court decisions limit the capacity of the state to collect information on its citizens without first obtaining a probable cause warrant.
There is a fascinating piece on Politico today by Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen entitled “Obama, the puppet master.” The article focuses on the ways in which the White House has dramatically limited press access to President Obama: “The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions. Instead, he spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities. Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on ‘The View’?”
Then, of course, there is the creative use of social media and staged events to create the illusion of access:
Obama boasted Thursday during a Google+ Hangout from the White House: “This is the most transparent administration in history.” The people who cover him day to day see it very differently.
… something is different with this White House. Obama’s aides are better at using technology and exploiting the president’s “brand.” They are more disciplined about cracking down on staff that leak, or reporters who write things they don’t like. And they are obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forums, not just for campaigns, but governing.
What should we conclude? Transparency is maximized when those in power tightly control information and use technology to create an alternate universe that reinforces the president’s priorities and excludes any media outlet that may ask uncomfortable questions or challenge the performance record.
While there are efforts to limit the availability of the information necessary to enforce genuine norms of transparency and accountability, there are simultaneously efforts to develop a greater capacity to collect information on citizens via domestic drones, as revealed in several recent articles.
By way of background, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2012 (section 1074) directed the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to submit a report describing and assessing “the rate of progress in integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.” It also (section 1097) directed the FAA to “establish a program to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system at six test ranges.”
Brian Bennett and Joel Rubin (LA Times) report that the Federal Aviation Administration has already issued 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators. Robert Johnson (Business Insider) reports FAA projections that there could be 30,000 drones in US skies by the end of the decade, making the domestic drone market worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Bennett and Rubin describe some concerns that all of this raises for civil libertarians:
“The technology is evolving faster than the law. Congress and courts haven’t determined whether drone surveillance would violate privacy laws more than manned planes or helicopters, or whether drone operators may be held liable for criminal trespassing, stalking or harassment.”
To get a sense of the state and local debates, see Josh Harkinson, “Can Police Be Trusted with Drones?” (Mother Jones) As the surveillance state expands, there is some evidence that state governments are formulating a response. See Allie Bohm (ACLU) “Status of Domestic Drone Legislation in the States” for a list of states legislating on this issue. Whether this amounts to more than an uneven patchwork remains to be seen.
A chief concern is that the federal government will push forward with domestic drone deployment without careful reflection on the implications for civil liberties. Given the first story and the recent White Paper on administration policy, perhaps the best we can hope for are some vague assurances (issued via Twitter or in a Google+ Hangout) that we can trust well intentioned officials to consider the implications.