Essam Attia, 29, the artist behind a series of provocative posters about NYPD surveillance strategies and possible future drone use, was arrested last week. The artist, who is also an US Army vet, created several official looking posters and, with the help of a crew dressed as maintenance workers, placed these posters around New York City early this fall.
The posters depict drones shooting missiles at fleeing people and intense cameras monitoring over people, and such slogans "Always Watching" and "Drones: Protection When You Least Expect It." The posters also include a precise NYPD logo. In a video interview posted on Animal New York, Attia, silhouetted and in a face mask, explains that his posters are intended to call attention to NYPD plans to start using unmanned aerial drones as surveillance tools within New York City. The art is intended to get more people thinking and talking about a critical issue: should police use drones for law enforcement?
Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles used regularly in aggressive military operations (for which they carry and deploy missiles) as well as surveillance missions (for which they are equipped with heat sensors, high resolution cameras, and advanced radar). Though most Americans think of drones in the context of far-off war zones, in February, the US Congress approved legislation that would allow 30,000 drones to be used within American airspace by 2020.
The machines are already regularly used along the US-Mexico Border. It is in no way outside of the realm of possibility for the NYPD to start using drones; in fact, in a memo released earlier this year through the Freedom of Information Act, NYPD officials stated that they were investigating the possibilities of using drones for law enforcement.
The use of extremely sophisticated and, indeed, invasive surveillance tools against American citizens is distressing. Why? Well, the New York Police reaction against Essam Attia has been swift and forceful. Attia was arrested on 56 criminal charges, from possession of a forged instrument, grand larceny possession of stolen property and weapons possession after "allegedly having an unloaded .22-caliber revolver under his bed at his Manhattan apartment when he was arrested." Quite a heavy price to pay for daring to speak out.
The NYPD's surveillance program has already raised concerns, with unconstitutional "stop-and-frisk" actions against minority youth, an extensive surveillance operation on Muslim people around NYC, and close surveillance of protestors within the Occupy movement. Which populations would be targeted for heightened surveillance? On what basis are people deemed suspicious and on what basis are people deemed guileless? Who would provide oversight of these new surveillance measures, ensuring that they not be used unethically? Are we comfortable with the idea of intelligence tools being used in American airspace? As Attila points out, these are conversations that we should be having, often and in earnest.