Robofly Is Spying on Us

John W. Whitehead

Posted Oct 18, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Robofly Is Spying on Us

By John W. Whitehead

The American government has gone surveillance crazy, and the objects of their surveillance are average people like you and me. They’ve eavesdropped on our phone calls, opened our letters, read our emails and tracked our movements with spy satellites. Now, they seem to be enlisting Mother Nature in their surveillance schemes.

Most recently, there have been sightings of “insectlike drones”—roboflies—hovering over political rallies in New York and Washington, seemingly spying on protesters. As a college senior from New York who was attending an anti-war rally in Washington explained, “I heard someone say, ‘Oh my god, look at those.’ I look up and I’m like, ‘What the hell is that? They looked kind of like dragonflies or little helicopters. But I mean, those are not insects.” Bernard Crane, a Washington lawyer, also witnessed these strange, machine-like dragonflies. “They were large for dragonflies. I thought, ‘Is that mechanical, or is that alive?’”

Or is it some sort of new spy gadget? According to Rick Weiss of the Washington Post, some suspect the insectlike drones are high-tech surveillance tools, perhaps deployed by the Department of Homeland Security. Of course, the government insists that no agency has access to such technology. But this simply is not true.

After all, the government has been involved in this sort of chicanery for some time now. In the 1970s, for example, the CIA began flirting with the idea of using insectlike robots to survey “enemies.” After determining that a man-made bumblebee was too erratic in flight, the CIA settled on a robotic dragonfly. This first insect-sized machine was guided by a laser beam while a miniature oscillating engine propelled its wings. But such technology failed when scientists couldn’t maintain control over the invention in a gentle wind.

Since then, the technology has evolved dramatically, making it highly probable that the government has now perfected its spy bugs. For instance, “some federally funded teams are even growing live insects with computer chips in them,” writes Weiss, “with the goal of mounting spyware on their bodies and controlling their flight muscles remotely.”

Getting this project off the ground is a high priority for the U.S. government. In fact, in 1999 the government was bankrolling a study by researchers at the University of California Berkley to the tune of $2.5 million. The government’s challenge was clear: “see robofly airborne by 2004.”

The goal has been met, as Department of Defense documents describe nearly 100 different model robots in use today. Indeed, these robots range in size from small birds to small planes, and many have the capacity to snap pictures as they navigate through the air. Similar efforts have led the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to insert computer chips into growing moths, “hatching them into healthy ‘cyborg moths.’” DARPA is also working on creating cyborg beetles and literal shutterbugs. And in July, a team of scientists from Harvard successfully put in flight a “fly-like robot” whose synthetic wings buzzed at 120 beats per second. 

These attempts to make the government’s spy operations more effective by using devices that blend in with Mother Nature haven’t been limited to flying insects. The CIA has also tested a 24-inch-long rubber robotic catfish that is capable of swimming among other fish. Virtually impossible to distinguish from real fish, “Charlie,” as it has been named, is a secret work in progress. According to Toni Hiley, curator of the CIA museum, “Charlie’s mission is still classified, we can’t talk about it.”

As Donald Kerr, CIA deputy director for science and technology, has noted, “You look at just the number of things we’re doing, a week, a year, it’s really quite astounding.” In fact, Kerr admits that CIA scientists spend a lot of time on “so-called tagging and tracking”—government-speak for spying.

One thing is clear. Such surveillance technology provides the government with never-before-seen intelligence tools that will not only be used against foreign enemies but, as we have seen, on American citizens as well. And the overused rejoinder that “if you’re innocent, you shouldn’t care” just doesn’t cut it.

The idea that you’re innocent until proven guilty is a core principle of the Bill of Rights. But if the government is filming you when you drive, listening to your phone calls, using satellites to track your movements and insect drones to further spy on you, you’d better believe that you’re already a suspect.

This is yet another link in the electronic concentration camp being erected around us.

WC: 745

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at