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With Closed-Circuit TV, Satellites And Phones, Millions Of Cameras Are Watching

Feb 8, 2018
Originally published on February 9, 2018 11:45 am
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Robert Draper says one of the greatest threats to our democracy is gerrymandering, in which the party in power in a state redraws the map of election districts to give the advantage to that party's candidates. Since districts are redrawn only every 10 years following the census, gerrymandering can almost guarantee that the majority party will stay in power. There are a couple of gerrymandering cases currently before the Supreme Court. Draper has reported on gerrymandering, and we'll talk about that a little later.

First, we're going to talk about his new article "They Are Watching You - And Everything Else On The Planet" published in this month's National Geographic. It's about state-of-the-art surveillance from closed-circuit TV to drones and satellites and the questions these surveillance technologies raise about privacy. As part of his research, he spent time in surveillance control rooms in London. And he went to a tech company in San Francisco whose mission is to image the entire Earth every day. Draper is a contributing writer for National Geographic and a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine.

Robert Draper, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So let's start with surveillance. Why did you choose England as the place to report on surveillance?

ROBERT DRAPER: Well, England has become kind of an obvious focal point to talk about surveillance. It's become, in a way, a petri dish for the subject, I suppose, for a couple reasons. First of all, the U.K. is where George Orwell wrote his dystopian classic "1984" back in 1949 when the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the USSR were his prime reference points. I don't think he was aware of it at the time that, in 1949, that's also when the first closed-circuit television camera, the first CCTV, was introduced to the market. And today, the U.K. has more of them than - at least for governmental use - than any other country on earth. And something like 106 million new surveillance cameras are sold every year.

So for that reason alone, I think that, you know, it's useful to consider that. But it's also that, beginning in the 1990s with the so-called ring of steel which was created by Parliament in the wake of the IRA bombing attacks in central London, that there has been this growth of the surveillance state there and a permissiveness and, indeed, of view of the benignness (ph), and even beyond that, the advantages to it from the public. And it has manifested itself not just in the so-called ring of steel but in surveillance cameras everywhere, in body-worn cameras used not just by police but also by people in hospitals, teachers and schools and ANPRs, so-called - they're basically roadside cameras that take pictures of every license plate not just for speeding but viewing everybody, to monitor presumably the comings and goings of terrorists but can be used for other nefarious purposes. So London, in particular, is the focal point of where civil libertarians have been preoccupying themselves vis-a-vis the growth of the surveillance state.

GROSS: So you spent some time in the closed-circuit TV control room - the CCTV control room - in Islington, which is a borough of England. Describe what you saw in that CCTV control room.

DRAPER: Yes. This control room is nondescript. Of course, you can't see anything from the outside once you're inside. It's as you imagine a control room would be in that it has a bank of display cameras and a couple of very bureaucratic-looking gentlemen sitting and watching them all day long, the so-called monitors. These displays basically view the activity that they see through 180 cameras that are posted throughout the borough of Islington. And that's set up, of course, in case there is a terrorist attack.

But frankly, they're more often used for purse snatchers, phone snatchers and motorcycle thieves. And so the morning that I spent inside the control room, a rather quiet morning, was one in which largely we monitored the comings and goings of a couple of guys who appeared to be moped thieves.

GROSS: When you say moped thieves, they stole the mopeds or they're using the mopeds to steal things from other people?

DRAPER: Both, actually. The mopeds were presumably ill-gotten by them and, indeed, there was a ring of that activity going on in Islington during the period of time that I was there. And they would be then using the stolen mopeds to, in turn, steal other merchandise from pedestrians. And so we basically just watched them go from camera to camera, from street to street. Of course, they were completely unaware that they were being watched. And throughout the hours that we watched, they actually didn't commit any crimes. And there was a sort of, you know, banality to it on the one hand because there is no excited activity from the actual monitors.

But there's also an obvious vulnerability and invasiveness to being - you would see these guys stop on the street and then they would start to talk to each other - about what? Who knows? You know, but what was clear was that they weren't looking around wondering if or not they were being monitored. There were signs throughout Islington and, indeed, throughout the city of London saying CCTV cameras are here. But they've just become sort of part of the urban wallpaper of London to the extent that the proliferation of them finally means that you really don't see them at all. And so that's what my morning was like there in Islington - several hours of watching bureaucrats watch citizens who may or may not have been guilty of crimes, were certainly guilty of being, like, the most exciting thing to watch on a otherwise placid Saturday morning.

GROSS: So when the cameras were watching these two young men on their mopeds, do the cameras move? Do the people in the control room control the cameras? Are there so many cameras that you can see continuous action from one camera to the next?

DRAPER: Both actually take place, Terry. First, the cameras can zoom in and out, can pan up to a certain point. But then once the two moped drivers leave an area beyond which the camera can see them, then one of the monitor guys will say to the other - in this case, two gentlemen named Sal and Eric - Eric, try camera number 168 or try 32. And so they would then punch up.

And they had a kind of photographic memory of which camera sees what part of the city. And thus, they can anticipate when these alleged moped thieves were turning left on a particular street, where they were likely to go and which camera would see them most optimally. So they were using the camera - each camera to its maximum benefit and then moving on to the camera that - into whose view the alleged thieves were coming into.

GROSS: How did it feel for you to kind of be spying on these two men?

DRAPER: That's an interesting question. And at first, it was kind of exciting, I have to say. You know, you feel like you are - you have walked into a portal into a person's private life. And you can see their absolute unguardedness. But it frankly felt, you know, insidious and creepy after a while because I was waiting for something criminal to take place.

And over time, it became clear to me that the likelihood of us actually catching them in the act of something was low, and further, that there was a real possibility that they weren't guilty of anything at all but that nonetheless they were going to be watched not with any real probable cause having been issued other than the fact that they were popping wheelies on a street, which is not a crime. And they would be watched all the way up until they did commit some kind of crime, which struck me as problematic, to say the least.

GROSS: Well, it makes me wonder, if profiling enters the picture, what happens?

DRAPER: Sure. Yeah. In this particular case, Islington feels justified in monitoring such individuals because there are, in fact, established rings of motorcycle thieves, of purse snatchers, of iPhone snatchers. And this is more or less the MO that they assume, the ones that we were watching on the street. So you could argue that that's probable cause and thus that sort of profiling is justified.

The profiling in this particular case can't be racial because they were wearing motorcycle helmets and you really couldn't get any sense of what they look like beyond the clothes and the helmet that they were wearing. But it certainly is true that that can come into play when monitoring suspected terrorist activity.

And indeed, it did in the city of Manchester years ago when cameras were set up to monitor Muslim neighborhoods. This was called Operation Champion. And once it was learned about well months into the operation, there was a lot of public outcry. There was no terrorist ring that was busted as a result of it. But what there was was a much-needed dialogue somewhat after the fact as to just what the police were up to in targeting this Muslim community.

GROSS: Say these two guys on mopeds were caught in the act of stealing an iPhone or committing another crime, then what? How do the people in the control room - in the CCTV control room - communicate to the police and catch the guys in the act? And how is the footage used? I imagine all of this video's being recorded. Is the intention to use that in a court case if it goes to court?

DRAPER: All of the above. The way it worked when I was watching the Islington monitors watch these two guys on motorcycles was that once they saw the activity in place, they contacted the police and said that, you know, we're now viewing these individuals. The police, in turn, asked of them to take photographs of their license plates, which they were able to do from remote by zooming in on the license plates. They sent those over to the police, who then kept them in their own database. At that point, there was no reason to arrest them. I suppose the hope was that a determination could be made whether or not these motorcycles, in fact, belonged to these individuals. And then from there, they could try to track them and perhaps effectuate an arrest. Then, of course, should an arrest take place, yes, there is actual footage - not just real-time imagery but, you know, a memory stored in a database - of what was taking place. And that can be used for a trial.

For that matter, when I was there, they were playing me a kind of recent greatest hits of the last week, images of a guy who was suspected of murdering another individual who was leaving an apartment complex. They wouldn't allow me to write about the particulars of that because a trial is upcoming. For that matter, an image of an area where an individual jumped to his death. And that also is being used for a suicide inquest. And so yeah, it's not just that the real-time monitoring can result in police activity, but it can also be used to build an investigation.

GROSS: Is there any equivalent in England to our constitutional privacy precautions?

DRAPER: There has been as a result of the Snowden disclosures - the Edward Snowden disclosures that their own spy agencies were retaining data on people. A debate ensued - but frankly, not a very vigorous debate - that resulted in the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act. And what that act really did more than anything else was just codify the conduct that their version of the National Security Agency had been engaged in surreptitiously for years. And there are other privacy laws on the books.

They have, most notably perhaps, something that no other country in the world that I know of has which is a so-called surveillance camera commissioner - an individual whose name is Tony Porter - whose job it is to sort of, you know, take a look at all the surveillances taking place and try to bring everyone to regulatory heel. But he operates on a budget of like $320,000 a year, has a staff of two, has no enforcement measures whatsoever. So it is, I hesitate to say, a ceremonial position but one that does not have much in the way of teeth.

The one thing that I did learn, Terry, from talking to various folks throughout my weeks in London was that, by and large, it was very difficult to find someone who was all that concerned about this. You know, the U.K., unlike other European countries, does not have any sort of history of totalitarian regimes. In fact, if anything, it has relied on spycraft - in the case of World War II, for example, in Bletchley Park. And so there's a kind of romance attached to, you know, James Bond. And so the notion of cameras watching people does not necessarily seem like a pernicious one to the Brits in a way that it perhaps might certainly to countries like Germany, but even for that matter, to America.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper. He's a contributing writer for National Geographic. And his piece in the February edition is called "They Are Watching You - And Everything Else On The Planet." We'll talk more about surveillance. And we're also going to talk about gerrymandering after we take a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Robert Draper. He's a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine and a contributing writer for National Geographic. His article in the February issue of National Geographic is about surveillance. It focuses on London, and it's called They Are Watching You - And Everything Else On The Planet."

So what other questions did all the surveillance that you witnessed raise in your mind?

DRAPER: Well, a bunch of different things, I suppose. I mean, one of them is that Orwell had it, I suppose, half right. We're being watched more encompassingly (ph) and in ways far more probing than the author could of ever contemplated. And the eye that watches us retains that memory, that data, in all sorts of insidious ways. Now, having said that, I mean, Orwell never contemplated an aggressively altruistic side of the surveillance too, one that can help us, you know, track poachers and refugees and forest fires and help us monitor melting polar ice caps, to say nothing of monitoring terrorist groups. But you do wonder.

This kind of big brotherism has, in a way, become more egalitarian too than Orwell could have contemplated because back when he wrote his book, sure, there were cameras around but it wasn't much in the way of a visual and visualized society. Today, something like 2.5 trillion images are shared on the Internet annually. Everybody, you could argue, is watching everybody else. And so maybe that balances the scales. Maybe on the other hand, it has resulted in a deterioration of privacy, a willing forfeiture of it to the point where, you know, we're basically expecting to be both voyeur and exhibitionist 24/7.

And we lose not only a sense of privation, but we also lose, you know, a sense of anything that's not visual, that we, you know, can't really conceive of something like - as a social scientist pointed out to me - something like dignity or honor. How do you visualize that? How do you capture that photographically? If it can't be seen - as, you know, the millennial phrase goes, pics or it didn't happen - then maybe it's not there at all. These are the kind of insidious effects of an all-surveilled society that I'm still puzzling over and don't have any particular answers to but which I think, you know, you see manifested in London certainly more than anywhere else.

GROSS: Is there any evidence in London that all of the surveillance through CCTV has helped either prevent a terrorist attack or help identify attackers?

DRAPER: No - simply no. There is really no evidence that all of these CTVs prevent crimes of any kind, much less terrorist attacks. Now, what is certainly true is that they have become invaluable as an investigatory tool. Once a terrorist attack does take place then they can figure out who did it, they can hopefully catch them, bring them to justice, et cetera. What they're hoping in the U.K., and indeed beyond - since, after all, surveillance is hardly the exclusive purview of the United Kingdom - is to be able to fashion a kind of synchronicity between their surveillance technology and actual law enforcement bodies on the ground such that if suspicious activity is seen in a tube station or something and there are law enforcement personnel nearby, that that information can be transmitted to them in real time. Perhaps they can see the image and respond accordingly. But there's still a slowness to that, a cumbersomeness to that that should lead us to the conclusion that, by and large, it is not a preventative tool. Not yet, and maybe not for a long time.

GROSS: So we've talked about surveillance in London. What's some of the state-of-the-art stuff going on, surveillance wise, here in the U.S.?

DRAPER: Sure. I mean, what we've really been talking about is kind of ground-level surveillance, Terry. But, the reality is, that barely encompasses even a fraction of the degree to which we're being watched. I mean, OK, there may be 106 million new surveillance cameras sold every year, but Americans alone bought 2.5 million drones in 2016 for private use, to say nothing of the U.S. government's arsenal. And even farther up in the heavens, there are something like 1,700 satellites that monitor our activity.

Now, again, as I referenced before, this in a lot of ways can be used and is being used altruistically. And, in particular, I focused in Silicon Valley on a company that developed its technology in Silicon Valley, is based now in San Francisco, known as Planet Labs, which has revolutionized the usage of satellites to the point where they are capable deploying 200 satellites strategically in outer space to monitor every inch of the globe every single day. Their operating thesis is that the planet is not static, there's a dynamism to it. And, OK, a satellite image can capture a really cool picture of, you know, a cityscape or something like that. But if you're looking for a problem, let's say you're looking at a city in Iraq where something catastrophic has taken place and refugees are leaving, and you're a humanitarian organization and you want to know where they go then having an image that you can take once every three months or once a year does you no good. You want to be able to track the movements of these refugees so that you can get humanitarian aid to them.

This is among the kinds of imagery that Planet Labs is able to supply, and they do it gratis to a number of humanitarian agencies, to the news media, et cetera. And it was conceived, in fact, by three former NASA scientists who really became obsessed with the notion of using imagery from outer space to help the planet. And so that's sort of the mission statement of Planet Labs. Now, they happen to have corporate clients, as well, and what those clients do with that imagery is another subject entirely.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Draper. His article in the current issue of National Geographic about state-of-the-art surveillance is called "They Are Watching You - And Everything Else On The Planet." We'll talk more about surveillance, and we'll discuss another subject he's reported on, partisan gerrymandering, after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Draper. He's a contributing writer for National Geographic and a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine. In a few minutes, we're going to talk about partisan gerrymandering. But first, let's pick up where we left off, talking about Draper's article in the current issue of National Geographic about state-of-the-art surveillance. As part of his research, he visited a San Francisco-based company called Planet founded by former NASA scientists. Planet has more than a 150 shoebox-size satellites in orbit snapping two images a second. When conditions are optimal, the company can photograph the Earth's entire landmass in a day. Draper says the company takes on humanitarian causes, like locating refugees, and also has corporate clients.

DRAPER: For example, there are companies like hedge funds, and they'll want to know where commerce is being shipped. They'll want to know what kind of shipping activity is taking place, say, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. They'll want to know maybe how much oil is being produced in Siberia. And so imagery can capture that activity on a very, very fluid basis. And we can actually see from the refineries in China, for example, how much oil they have available right now, and that's going to affect the prices of oil, and we can hedge against that. And you can see essentially what your competition is up to in terms of whether a certain amount of coal is being shipped from one area to another. So it's become a very ingenious way for hedge funds and other investors to track global commerce.

GROSS: Can you give us a sense of where these cameras are in the sky that are monitoring the entire Earth at the same time?

DRAPER: Yeah. They're 300 miles away from us and they're deployed in all sorts of kind of crazy locations, and for that matter - in outer space - they're actually shot from rockets. They're sent out from rockets, which themselves are deployed from places ranging from the North Pole to central California.

GROSS: These are private rockets.

DRAPER: These are private rockets. That's right. And it - and Planet now has actually built and commissioned its own rockets to be able to do this. In the past, they actually would have to pay someone else to launch their own satellites. They have different kinds of satellites that can monitor from different ranges. Their best resolution is limited to about 10 feet, which means that from a camera from outer space, they can capture sort of the grainy outline of a car, but they can't see a person's face. So, you know, you can't use Planet's imagery to monitor the daily activity of your business competitor or an opposing political candidate or your former spouse or something.

GROSS: So what else are we kind of oblivious to that is surveilling us now in the states?

DRAPER: Well, I think that what we're oblivious to is that, among other things, cameras, such as what we were talking about in London, which were deployed in London originally for terrorist-catching purposes, are also being deployed in places like Houston, Texas, where there is no history of terrorist activity, where there is no history of major crime sprees of, you know, like, the so-called inner-city crime problem in Chicago, for example, which has caused a major uptick in the use of CCTVs in the city of Chicago - is now being more or less duplicated in Houston where they have very quietly deployed about 900 cameras throughout the city. And they've done this largely because Department of Homeland Security grant money was available to do so, and they took advantage of it not because there was any particular threat.

And I'm from the city of Houston. There is no Houstonian that I've talked to that is even aware that these cameras exist. And now they don't have a big monitoring station like, say, in the borough of Islington. There are various people in various headquarters who can punch up a particular area at that time. So it doesn't feel like something as surreptitious as what goes on in the U.K. It's nonetheless there, and it crept up more or less overnight with little to no public debate.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper. He's a contributing writer for National Geographic and a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine. Robert, I want to talk with you about gerrymandering. You wrote a big piece about it for The Atlantic in 2012. You've been continuing to follow the story, and the story seems to be reaching something of a turning point now. There were several states that have cases before the state's highest court, or the Supreme Court. And it looks like we'll be getting some interesting precedents in the near future. But let me back up a step and start with, would you explain what gerrymandering is?

DRAPER: Sure, Terry. Gerrymandering is basically the perversion of what's known as redistricting, which in turn is supposed to be about the reapportionment of all of our 435 congressional districts. The objective here constitutionally is that all of us are entitled to an equal vote. And so every 10 years, a U.S. census takes place to figure out how many Americans there are and where they are. And congressional maps are then redrawn to reflect those changes in population with the aim of us all being able to have as equal a vote, say, if I'm in a particular district in Wisconsin as I would if I'm in midtown Manhattan. That's the concept for the redistricting that takes place every 10 years.

Gerrymandering is basically the concept of using redistricting to shape these districts in a way that will advantage whatever ruling party there is. And it is a concept that is as old as - it actually predates Congress, since before the first Congress. Patrick Henry prevailed upon the Virginia legislature to shape his own districts so that it would be to his advantage and that he could win. And the term itself comes from Elbridge Gerry who had been the governor of Massachusetts and in 1812 presided over a reshaping of the maps in the state of Massachusetts that were so warped that one of them looked like a salamander's tail, hence gerrymandering. So that's what gerrymandering is.

What's - what it has become is a sort of partisan warfare that has had the effect of, frankly, subverting democracy in ways that Putin himself could never have imagined doing because it really does dilute an individual's voting power and basically makes congressional districts such a fait accompli that the ruling party can basically say after drawing maps after a particular census, here, now we have districts that are pronouncedly, say, Republican districts. And no matter what Democrat runs against us, we're going to win.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite blatant example of gerrymandering?

DRAPER: Well, I have a lot of favorites in the state of North Carolina and in the state of Texas. One of my favorite examples is Texas congressional district 27, which is currently held by a Republican named Blake Farenthold, who won in the 2010 Tea Party year by about 800 votes despite the fact that it is an overwhelmingly Latino district and that Farenthold himself does not speak Spanish. But it being the Tea Party year, Latino turnout was very low, white turnout was very high, and Farenthold won then what was thought to be kind of a fluke, a one-off. But following the 2010 census, Republican state legislators and Texas endeavored to make that a permanent seat for Farenthold or whatever Republican would follow him. And so they redrew that district in a way that - it's currently shaped what I guess you would say is like a Glock revolver held at a 45 degree angle.

It would make no sense to someone who would just imagine how you'd draw up state congressional districts. It makes a lot of sense, though, if you're a Republican and you're basically trying to hoover up Republican votes wherever you can to overcome what Latino population you kind of have to retain in that district. Now, Farenthold is stepping down, is not going to run next year in the wake of revelations that he engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct with a staffer of his. But it is still, at least up to this point - though it's subject to federal court consideration - a district that overwhelmingly favors any Republican who would run for that seat.

GROSS: So as part of successful gerrymandering about subdividing the voters from the other party and apportioning them in a spread out way so that they don't have a majority in any of the districts.

DRAPER: Sure. Well, yeah, and the two terms of - are, Terry, known as packing and cracking. What you've just described is cracking, which basically is to take a voting bloc - let's say in Texas again - and you're concerned that there is an African-American voting bloc that could be very formidable in a particular area of, oh, central Texas, let's say. So you then dilute that by moving some of the African-American precincts into one district and some of them into another district so that ultimately their voting power is diluted against other Republican voters who - in comparison to the strength of the Republican voters in those districts. Then there is something known as packing, which is where you would basically move more and more African-American voters into a congressional district than the Democratic congressmen - we'll assume they're Democratic in this case since overwhelmingly African-American voters support Democrats. But - that they get more and more voters than they could ever want.

And basically their district has become packed so that they will win not just by 53 percent margins but by 80 percent margins, which may be great for that particular Democratic legislator but isn't great for the African-American population because then that just means that what they've gotten out of all this in the state of Texas is one legislator where their influence could have been felt had they been spread out in other congressional districts.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper, a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine and a contributing writer at National Geographic. We'll talk more about partisan gerrymandering after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Draper, a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine. We're talking about partisan gerrymandering - when the party in power in a state redraws the electoral districts to favor that party. So how would you say gerrymandering has affected national politics?

DRAPER: Well, it's - it has become, I think, the most insidious force in America now. It - what it means is that each political party that dominates a particular state legislature seeks to win elections before the first vote is cast by creating maps that so favor them that the only way that there really can be, you know, the only real threat then to the electoral livelihood of their party will be if either there's some politically seismic event that takes place or if there are population trends that happen within that 10-year census period that they could not have predicted. But what it means is, like - you know, so in the states of North Carolina and Texas and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin after the 2010 census that the state legislatures in all of those states were controlled by Republicans. And they sought basically to redraw the maps in such ways that they would gain more seats already.

Basically in the case of Pennsylvania that has 18 congressional districts, they redrew them in a way that there would be an advantage of 13 Republican districts to five Democratic districts - this despite the fact that in the state of Pennsylvania there are 800,000 more Democratic voters across the state than there are Republican. So you'd think using that math that at minimum it would be more of a 50/50 proposition. But thanks to gerrymandering, the Republicans now control the - their congressional district is overwhelmingly Republican.

GROSS: How do you think gerrymandering affects state politics?

DRAPER: State House boundaries are drawn in the same way. And of course, they are drawn all for the same reason. If you have more, let's say, Republicans in the state legislature, that's only - that's not only good for Republicans vis-a-vis state policies and state politics, it also means that that legislature then will be likely around the next census period later and will be able to draw the maps all over again that will impact that party not only on the state level but on the federal level as well.

GROSS: So gerrymandering is kind of self-perpetuating.

DRAPER: It is self-perpetuating, and it's worth noting that though - it happens that the Republicans control the lion's share of the statehouses and thus, particularly since the early 2000s, have been aggressive when it comes to redrawing maps. This is not something that's exclusively the purview of the Republican Party. We've seen Democrats when they've controlled statehouses in Maryland and in Illinois do the same thing. And neither side wants to unilaterally disarm. Both of them see the horrificness (ph) of this. But no one wants to lay down their arms and especially when it means that your party can stay in power.

So, you know, I doubt that if the Democrats managed to win back the majority of the statehouses in time for the 2020 census that what we would see is a cascade of redistricting reform legislation come to the Hill. In fact, John Tanner, a former Democratic congressman from Tennessee, introduced such legislation and couldn't get Nancy Pelosi interested in it any more than he could get the Republicans interested in it.

GROSS: The Supreme Court has a couple of gerrymandering cases before it. My understanding is that the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that you can't gerrymander based on race because that violates the Voting Rights Act, but now it's going to rule on partisan gerrymandering. So can you talk about what's at stake in the Supreme Court now?

DRAPER: This is interesting, Terry, because in Texas, for example, the defendants, the state legislature, had conceded, sure, we're doing this sort of partisan advantage, but we're not doing this by any means to racially discriminate. And they got something of a pass on that, but now the state of Pennsylvania and the state of Wisconsin are seeing a different reaction from the United States Supreme Court, who've basically said, no, no, this kind of partisan gerrymandering is so naked, so blatant and comes clearly at the expense of equal representation of voting that it warrants another look. The most recent case was just a few days ago, when the Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito refused to stay the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court's ruling that the Pennsylvania state legislature needed to redraw its maps and needs to do so, in fact, by this Friday, and if they don't do so then the state Supreme Court might well do so itself.

I think that what's happening here, Terry, is that, first of all, it now seems inevitable that any legislature that draws congressional maps, that bear a whiff of partisanship are going to wind up in the courts, Republican or Democrat. But I also think that, you know, that one can go too far about saying, you know, this is a reckoning for redistricting. For one thing, the Supreme Court has made clear that they don't have any appetite at all for seeing all of these maps redrawn this year during the 2018 midterm elections. So they're affording a fairly wide latitude to the states to get this figured out on their own time, and that own time won't be 2018.

For another, I think, you know, the Republicans are not going to go down without a fight on some of this stuff. In Pennsylvania, now the state legislature has responded to Sam Alito's, Justice Alito's ruling and the state Supreme Court's ruling by saying basically they're going to impeach the state Supreme Court, they're so outraged about it. So there's a lot of back and forth.

GROSS: Republicans have called on impeaching Democratic members of the state Supreme Court because of the way that they ruled on the gerrymandering case.

DRAPER: That's exactly right. So they're...

GROSS: That's a pretty strong reaction.

DRAPER: Yeah. It's a pretty strong reaction, and it's clear what they're up to. But this notion that for simply saying, look, these maps were drawn in a way that is partisan, and for, further, to have the implicit blessing of a Supreme Court justice to have said so, to be responded to by the Republican-controlled state legislature in Pennsylvania that, well, then we're going to impeach you guys, certainly is a reflection of how pugilistic things have become in American politics today.

GROSS: So could the Republicans in Pennsylvania follow through on their threat to impeach Democratic members of the state Supreme Court?

DRAPER: They could. It's within their authority. It would be certainly unorthodox, and, as to whether they have the requisite numbers to pull off an impeachment, I'm not sure. It's also unclear to me whether this is just bluster, whether they're just blowing off steam, whether they really believe this and or are just simply maneuvering to see if this will bring them to some other kind of middle ground. It's unclear. Nothing like that's ever happened before, to my knowledge, that sitting judges have been impeached and removed because they struck down a redistricting map, but, we live in unusual times.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper, a writer at large for The New York Times magazine and a contributing writer at National Geographic. We'll talk more about partisan gerrymandering after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Robert Draper, a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine. We're talking about gerrymandering. There's a couple of cases about partisan gerrymandering currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

So what are the possible outcomes we might see from the Supreme Court, and how might that affect the future of redistricting?

DRAPER: That we've now arrived at a moment in time where the naked partisanship, or, seemingly naked partisanship of these maps is being evaluated by the federal courts and now by the High Court is perhaps a recognition that we've maybe come too far. You know, that finally it's a recognition that the states have stopped even pretending to draw maps in any other way than to give the ruling party its advantage, to give not just seated incumbents basically a chair, a seat for life, but also to expand the ruling party's territory, and that it's gotten to a point then where the concept of one person, one vote, which is basic to a participatory democracy, is being threatened and may be thwarted all together by gerrymandering. That's what is likely to be addressed. And, no doubt, I think we will see from the more liberal-leaning members of the Supreme Court that sentiment echoed. How Justice Alito or Justice Thomas will react to something that does not have a blatant racial spin to it is, you know, is terra incognita.

GROSS: So are you expecting to see any changes that would apply to the midterm elections in November?

DRAPER: No, I don't think there will be any changes at all that will affect the midterms. I think that - so it won't - now, the only change would be if, in fact, the Pennsylvania maps are redrawn and redrawn right away, there is right now a special election on the horizon in mid-March. And if it happens that maps are redrawn by the state supreme court or that, under duress, the state legislature draws one, that makes that particular congressional district more favorable, then that could swing to the Democrats in a way that would not have been anticipated before this whole subject arose. Beyond that, however, I'm not seeing any evidence that North Carolina or Texas is going to have - or Wisconsin will have maps significantly redrawn in a way that will advantage the party that had been disadvantaged, in this case, the Democrats this year.

GROSS: Has writing about gerrymandering made you think about how imperfect American democracy is?

DRAPER: Yes. I mean, redistricting is one of those, you know, vanilla terms, you know, somewhat opaque that just sounds very technocratic and wouldn't seem to have any impact on our daily lives. But I think it has much more impact than even, you know, what Vladimir Putin was attempting to do in disrupting our election in 2016. Electoral cycle after a electoral cycle, Americans go to the polls expecting that their vote will count. They feel a kind of surge of civic pride perhaps that their vote could potentially make a difference. But in most districts, it will not make a difference. And it won't make a difference because maps have been drawn in such a way as to make the outcome preordained, that basically voters are taken out of the consideration of the electoral cycle, out of how it is that our representatives come to Washington and govern on behalf of the American people.

It's a sort of, you know, alarming eventuality. And it's one that people don't think much about. And perhaps that's, you know, all the more concerning that it hasn't come close to entering the American discourse. But it is, I believe, you know, really the No. 1 threat to participatory democracy today more than any other. You know, there are other things that may be well worth discussing vis-a-vis the 2016 election, but this has been something that - a train that has been coming down the track since the 1960s, has accelerated with force through the 1990s and now basically has overrun the principle of one person, one vote.

GROSS: Well, Robert Draper, thank you so much for talking with us.

DRAPER: It's my pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Robert Draper is a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine and a contributing writer at National Geographic. In the current issue of National Geographic, he has an article about state-of-the-art surveillance titled "They Are Watching You - And Everything Else On The Planet."

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FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.