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Daniel Stein

Sky watch

Technology | Police dabble with cameras that monitor entire cities

Issue: "The GOP’s Greg Abbott," May 31, 2014

A citywide aerial surveillance test is raising eyebrows in California—and raising questions about the future of police surveillance. Los Angeles County police last month admitted to secretly testing an airplane-mounted system that recorded ground movements in the city of Compton, south of Los Angeles, for nine days in 2012.

The California-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) revealed the Compton surveillance program in an April report. The technology, sold by a private company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, uses a checkerboard array of cameras attached to a piloted Cessna to capture wide-angle images of a 16-square-mile area.

According to the company’s website, the system, called Hawkeye, enables “continuous, second-by-second video monitoring of a city-sized area.” If suspicious activity occurs on some street, police can zoom in or rewind the video to go back in time at that location. 

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“The Hawkeye system is similar to a live version of Google Earth—only with a TiVo-like capability,” says Persistent Surveillance Systems, based in Ohio. Its technology has been used in over 30 murder investigations since 2007, including a drive-by shooting: Police discovered the origin of the shooter’s vehicle by rewinding the video.

Having searchable video for every square foot of a city sounds like a boon for law enforcement, but privacy advocates aren’t so comfortable. “It’s capturing a lot of people’s activity who aren’t doing anything wrong, who are innocent citizens,” Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CIR.

Even L.A. County Sheriff Sgt. Doug Iketani, who oversaw the test, admitted the sheriff’s department kept it confidential on purpose: “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother. So in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush.”

During the nine-day test in Compton, police captured video of necklace snatchings and a shooting. But they ultimately decided not to adopt the system because the resolution was too low—a human made up a single pixel—to identify individuals or vehicles. 

Of course, what is low resolution today could be high resolution tomorrow. Persistent Surveillance Systems plans to scale up the technology to cover even larger cities, and is pitching it to police departments across the country. Its plane-mounted cameras have already been used in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Dayton, Ohio. They have monitored crowds and traffic around the racetracks and parking lots during NASCAR events, like the Brickyard 400. There’s a night vision version, too.

North of L.A., the city of Lancaster adopted its own aerial surveillance program in 2012. But not without some public protest first.

Communist cleanup

ImagineChina/AP

The Chinese government, not known for religious fervor, has begun purging the internet of immorality. In a “Cleaning the Web 2014” campaign launched mid-April, authorities have taken down over 100 websites and over 3,000 social networking accounts they said were lewd or pornographic. They said they would revoke the news and audio-visual publication licenses of Sina Corp., which runs a popular microblogging website, for hosting several sexually explicit videos and e-books “imperiling social morals and seriously harming minors’ physical and mental health.” Some critics said the campaign was merely part of a governmental effort to strengthen internet censorship in China, where Western websites like Facebook are banned. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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