Artists Use Their Media to Voice Concerns About Privacy Intrusions

Artists are joining the conversation about privacy intrusions from drones and other surveillance mechanisms. A fiberglass sculpture of a U.S. military drone is now hovering 25 feet above New York’s iconic High Line. The sculpture is a commissioned work for the High Line Plinth. Modeled after London’s Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth, the project is intended to provide a space for rotating examples of contemporary monumental public art.

The sculptor, Sam Durant, no stranger to controversy over his public art, has created an abstracted version of the Predator drone, rotating on a steel pole. (The Predator drone has been used by the U.S. military since 1995 to conduct surveillance and airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries.) The artist designed the sculpture with different weather conditions in mind, so visibility varies with clouds and wind. 

The High Line website provides the following explanation:

With this work, artist Sam Durant seeks to make visible the intentionally obscured drone warfare perpetuated by the US, and to remind the public that drones and surveillance are a tragic and pervasive presence in the daily lives of many living outside — and within — the United States.

Durant is not the only artist trying to render secret surveillance visible. Trained as a geographer and a photographer, artist Trevor Paglen positions himself in public places and uses an extreme telephoto lens to document secret drones at U.S. military facilities. He also traces the paths of information-gathering satellites in what he calls an alternative catalog of the night sky. He sees himself in the tradition of Western landscape photography with its ever-present undercurrent of violence. He even learned to scuba dive so he could photograph underwater cables for data collection. It’s a short hop to Paglen’s immersion in artificial intelligence and especially how machines teach machines. In his own words:

Something dramatic has happened to the world of images: they have become detached from human eyes. Our machines have learned to see [w]ithout us…I call this world of machine-[to]-machine image-making ‘invisible images,’ because it’s a form of vision that’s inherently inaccessible to human eyes

The haunting works of Durant and Paglen can be viewed and understood from many perspectives — aesthetic, technological, political — but it is undeniable that they bear witness to the secret intrusions of government into our lives and the lives of others around the world.

In an earlier article we discussed the significant privacy concerns, including constitutional issues, raised by the use of drones for both public and private purposes. A June 2021 decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the constitutionality of a city government program of aerial surveillance. In Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle et al. v. Balt. Police Department et al., No. 20-1495, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, June 24, 2021, the Court voted 8 to 7 to reverse the lower court’s decision and found that a Baltimore program that used aerial photography to track movements related to serious crimes without warrants violated the Fourth Amendment (“… because the AIR [Aerial Investigative Research] program opens ‘an intimate window’ into a person’s associations and activities, it violates the reasonable expectation of privacy individuals have in the whole of their movements.”). The Court noted that the photographic record of movements, analyzed with other available information, was often sufficient to allow law enforcement to identify the individuals. In so holding, the Court relied on the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018), finding a Fourth Amendment violation in the government acquisition of cell phone records yielding data as to personal location. A vigorous dissent in Leaders argued, inter alia, that the opinion transforms Carpenter “into an effective ban on all short-term warrantless tracking of public movements.” The Baltimore case may be headed to the Supreme Court — stay tuned.

Members of Congress have expressed grave concern over the use of military-grade drones – with possibly greater identification capabilities - by law enforcement to collect data from protests surrounding the George Floyd murder.

Finally, it’s worth noting that U.S. government access to individual personal data generally is at the heart of the July 2020 decision by the European Court of Justice invalidating what was known as the Privacy Shield, which allowed for transfer of the personal data of citizens of the European Union into the U.S. The finding that the personal data of EU residents is not sufficiently protected in the U.S. has thrown international data transfer into a state of chaos, at least until a substitute for the Privacy Shield has been negotiated.

Clearly the debate as to the bounds of permissible government surveillance and access to our personal information is ongoing and heated, and artists have a lot to say on the topic.