The Drone Iran Shot Down Was A 16-Ton, $220M Monster With A 120-Foot Wingspan. Was It Spying Or Doing Surveillance?

Written by Dana Sanchez
FILE – In this Jan. 15, 2009 , file photo The Global Hawk, a version of the Air Force’s top-of-the-line unmanned spyplane, is unveiled at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The computer-controlled, high-altitude drone is known for surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

The massive unmanned U.S. drone shot down last week by Iran over the Strait of Hormuz had powerful surveillance sensors that can monitor ground or maritime activity in great detail.

Similar technology has been used to gather information on human activity over U.S. cities. So who gets to decide when it’s spying and when it’s surveillance?

Iran identified the drone as an RQ-4A Global Hawk. It’s a piece of technology that has been described as a massive $220 million surveillance platform in the sky, Wired reported. 

Drones of this size and weight capacity can use equipment like huge telephoto camera lenses to get detailed views of targets. It’s uncertain exactly what equipment was on board this Global Hawk.

“There could always be super-secret spy tech onboard that we don’t know about,” said Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a drone researcher.

Searches for the word “surveillance” spiked 5,500 percent on April 12, 2019 at Merriam Webster dictionary after former FBI director James Comey commented on Attorney General William Barr’s use of the word “spying”.

“When I hear that kind of language used, it’s concerning because the F.B.I., the Department of Justice conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance,” said Comey, who oversaw the special counsel inquiry until President Donald Trump fired him in May 2017. “I have never thought of that as spying,” Comey said, according to a New York Times report.

Surveillance means “close watch kept over someone or something,” according to Merriam-Webster. By contrast, spy means “to watch secretly, usually for hostile purposes.”

This isn’t the first time Iran captured a U.S. drone. In 2011, it captured a US RQ-170 Sentinel drone and claimed to have reverse engineered the vehicle’s hardware and software to copy its technology. Sentinel drones are thought to use stealth technology for inconspicuous aerial reconnaissance. In 2018, year, Israeli officials said they had intercepted an Iranian drone that appeared to be a “copy” of a Sentinel, Wired reported.

Initially, Trump tweeted, “Iran made a very big mistake!” after the drone was shot down. Later, he was less aggressive, saying, “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”

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Last week’s downed Global Hawk followed an earlier incident where the U.S. accused Iran of attacking two fuel tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. also said that Iran had attempted unsuccessfully to shoot down a different drone — a MQ-9 Reaper. The Pentagon also linked Iran to an attack on a Reaper drone in Yemen two weeks ago that caused it to crash. 

In 2016, Baltimore police experimented with a system of aerial surveillance aircraft, adapted from the U.S. military presence in Iraq, without informing the citizens of the existence of the program. Monte Reel wrote about it in a 2016 Bloomberg article entitled, “It’s not spying If They’re Always Watching.”

The aircraft over Baltimore wasn’t a massive drone like Iran shot down. It was a small Cessna equipped with sophisticated cameras capturing an 80-square-kilometer area up to 10 hours a day. It continuously transmitted images in real time to analysts on the ground who checked and filed them if necessary. The system, marketed by Persistent Surveillance Systems, was routinely used to investigate crimes ranging from theft and shootings to demonstrations with potential for public disorder.

“Welcome to the future. One in which cities are constantly monitored from the air and everywhere else using omnipresent combinations of cameras and sensors that are increasingly accurate,” wrote Enrique Dans in a 2016 Medium article at the time.