"PFFFFTTTTTT! WE ALREADY KNEW THAT!" was a common response from some people when last summer's Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA was monitoring American communications. And in some ways, they were right. We already knew a lot thanks to PBS documentaries. So what PBS documentary will we point to when we learn that the eye-in-the-sky surveillance movie Enemy of the State was frighteningly prophetic? Probably NOVA's "Rise of the Drones" from January of 2013.
If you watched the 2009 NOVA episode "The Spy Factory," or the 2007 Frontline episode "Spying on the Homefront" you'll see it all there — the phone surveillance, the internet monitoring, and even the whistleblowers from the NSA facilities who were listening to your phone calls. We knew American intelligence agencies were spying on Americans with impunity.
We may not have known all the details, and we may not have appreciated the scope, but everything pointed in that direction. "The Spy Factory" was even produced by James Bamford, the writer who most recently met with Snowden for a Wired cover story.
So it would seem that NOVA's "Rise of the Drones" — which originally aired on January 23, 2013 — could very well become the new "we already knew that" point of reference for Americans just a few years from now. Watching this PBS documentary, it's easy to see how those silly Big Brother-style surveillance movies like Enemy of the State (1998) could have been way ahead of their time.
"Today we've developed sensors that can watch with an all-seeing eye and see an area about the size of a small city, all at one time!" retired Air Force Lt. General David A. Deptula says in the documentary.
Persistent surveillance technology — government cameras staring at you from space — has been the tinfoil hat conspiracy of choice for decades. Ever since Sputnik launched its way into our lives in 1957, people have feared that governments have been tracking our every movement from the sky.
But given the technology available to intelligence agencies and police forces around the world — to say nothing of the private sector's surveillance, or public-private partnerships — it's no longer outlandish to question just what kind of monitoring is being done from space. Wide Area Aerial Surveillance is no longer just a strange sci-fi plot device.
The PBS documentary introduces us to Argus, the 1.8 billion pixel sensor that's touted as the world's highest resolution camera. But since this program first aired, we've gotten even more clues about the capabilities of the Pentagon in monitoring an entire city from the air by way of satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles.
The current domestic spying scandals brought to light by Edward Snowden focus almost exclusively on communications technologies. But given what we know about the Pentagon's current surveillance capabilities from above, it seems like only a matter of time before the other shoe drops — a shoe spotted from 30,000 feet above our heads.
Image: Screenshot from the January 2013 NOVA documentary Rise of the Drones