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Sam Jaffe Goldstein

‘Nothing Kept Me Up At Night the Way the Gorgon Stare Did.’

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Sam Jaffe Goldstein | Longreads | June 2019 | 15 minutes (3,946 words)

Drones have come to define the United States’ forever war, the so-called war on terror. The expansion of drone systems developed by the military into new territories — including the continental United States — embodies this era’s hyper-paranoid ethos: new threats are ever imminent, conflict is always without resolution. At the same time, non-militarized drones have entered civilian life in a number of ways, from breathtaking cinematography to flight control at Heathrow airport. There are many avid documenters of this new technology, but no one seems to understand its many facets quite like Arthur Holland Michel, founder and co-director of the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone, which catalogs the growing use of drones around the world. Now, Holland Michel has written Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All, a book of startling revelations about drone surveillance in the United States.

Holland Michel has lived and breathed drone technology for the last six years, but nothing quite shocked him like the technology of Wide Angle Motion Imagery (WAMI). WAMI greatly expands the power that a camera attached to a drone can have; it is able to watch and record a much greater area while also tracking multiple specific targets within that area. In his book Holland Michel lays out how scientists and engineers created this surveillance technology through a Manhattan-project like mission. The name — a little too on the nose — that the scientists decided to give their new invention was “Gorgon Stare,” after the terrifying mythological creature whose mere glance could turn you to stone. Even from the very beginning, Gorgon Stare’s creators knew that its power would extend beyond its original stated purpose — to help prevent IED attack and track insurgents across conflict zones. Now, proponents of WAMI are finding uses for it in civilian life, and Holland Michel argues that the public must be involved in any decision before it is deployed above us. I met up with Arthur on a beautiful Spring day (perfect for flying drones) to discuss this profoundly troubling technology, how to prevent its worst potential from being realized, and maybe — just maybe — how drones can be used for good. Read more…