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New surveillance techniques raise privacy concerns

April 26, 2014 at 12:56 PM EDT
A report from the Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED delves into a wide-scale surveillance system being developed for police forces. How can the trade off between safety and privacy be negotiated as technology gets more and more sophisticated?

OPERATOR: 911, What’s your emergency?

CALLER: I’d like to report a robbery.

AMANDA PIKE: This may look like a typical satellite map, but you’re actually watching a crime unfold.

CALLER: He just snatched my mom’s chain away from her and just ran off.

AMANDA PIKE: A robbery on a residential street in Compton, California. On the left a man is about to steal a necklace from a woman on the sidewalk.

DOUG IKETANI: Yeah, I remember this call. It was basically your typical middle-aged woman walking down the street with a friend of hers having a conversation, a young male approaches her, he reaches out, grabs her chain off her neck, runs down the street and disappears.

AMANDA PIKE: Doug Iketani is a sergeant with the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

DOUG IKETANI: In traditional policing, we won’t be able to solve these types of crimes. 99 percent of the time we’re not going to find anybody.

AMANDA PIKE: But the Sheriff’s department wasn’t just relying on traditional policing. For almost two weeks in 2012, it watched Compton from the sky, testing a new technology called wide area surveillance — unbeknownst to residents on the ground.

DOUG IKETANI: The system was kinda kept confidential from everybody in the public. 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.”

AMANDA PIKE: The array of cameras on the aircraft that flew over Compton can record high-resolution images of a 25-square mile area for up to six hours. It can track every person and vehicle on the ground, beaming back the pictures in real time.

It’s city-wide surveillance on an unprecedented scale.

ROSS MCNUTT: What we essentially do is a live version of google earth only with a full TIVO capability, it allows us to rewind time and go back and see events that we didn’t know occurred at the time they occurred.

AMANDA PIKE: Ross McNutt is the President of Dayton, Ohio-based persistent surveillance systems, the company that ran the test in compton.

McNutt developed a similar system in the Air Force that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ROSS MCNUTT: It was at the height of the IED problem. And our objective was to be able to follow the bombers from where the bomb went off back to the house where they were building the bombs and be able to use that.

Towards the end of the time when the system was deployed we looked at it and said, hey, there’s some real law enforcement applications to this.

AMANDA PIKE: McNutt redesigned the original system to make it affordable for local law enforcement.

He has tested the technology in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Dayton, where he says it provided police with useful leads on shootings, armed robberies, and narcotics cases.

The LA county sheriff’s department chose Compton as a test site, because it’s a compact city with a high crime rate.

ROSS MCNUTT: We literally watched all of Compton during the time that we’re flying anywhere within that whole area, we can zoom down live or after the fact to resolutions just barely to be able to follow people.

DOUG IKETANI: My first initial thought was like “Oh, big brother – we’re going to have a camera flying over us.”

But with the wide-area surveillance, you would have the ability to solve a lot of the unsolvable crimes with no witnesses, no videotaped surveillance, no fingerprints.

AMANDA PIKE:  From a mobile command center, McNutt monitored 911 calls – like the robbery call you heard earlier.

ROSS MCNUTT: There had been a rash of crimes in Compton with people getting necklaces snatched. so the LA Sheriff’s Department asked us to investigate this.

DOUG IKETANI (in car): This is where the robbery occurred he’s just walking down the street she thinks he’s just a regular pedestrian, doesn’t notice anything about him. Grabs the necklace off of her neck, runs down the street.

ROSS MCNUTT: We went to the address and we watched it and what we saw was somebody getting out of a car here. And then the person walks down the street here, while the car circles around to the other side of the block. And what you have is a person walking down the road there and in just a moment here is where the necklace is stolen. Right there. And then the person is going to run off quickly to get into the car, back into the car that was driven around the block and we can follow that person off.

AMANDA PIKE:  The system doesn’t have the resolution to identify license plates or people. A person is just a pixel. Analysts track the car and rely on cameras at traffic lights or gas stations to capture a close-up image.

In this case, the suspects eventually drove out of camera range without being identified. But Iketani says the experiment still gave police some valuable leads.

DOUG IKETANI (in car): Now we know that that car was involved. so that way our deputies can start monitoring those streets and maybe they’ll see that car driving by with the two bad guys in there and maybe we can stop them and arrest them.

AMANDA PIKE:  So far, no police department has purchased the system which McNutt says costs under $4 million — less than one police helicopter.

Iketani says the technology doesn’t provide the kind of detailed images that would hold up in court.

DOUG IKETANI: It was a great experiment, but in the end, the resolution just wasn’t there for us to use it on a day-to-day basis.

AMANDA PIKE:  While some officers say the resolution isn’t sharp enough, privacy advocates worry that wide area surveillance is already too powerful.

JENNIFER LYNCH: i think it’s a huge concern. I think it’s another example of technology advancing and completely outpacing the development of the law.

AMANDA PIKE: Jennifer Lynch is an attorney with the electronic frontier foundation, a civil liberties organization based in san francisco.

JENNIFER LYNCH: If you ask law enforcement if what they’re doing is legal, they will say we have no expectation of privacy in public, as we travel around in public but the ability to backtrack through time to map a car going from one location to another is completely different because with surveillance camera that can capture 25 square miles, it’s capturing a lot of people’s activity who aren’t doing anything wrong, who are innocent citizens. That’s a problem.

AMANDA PIKE: McNutt believes that persistent surveillance could lead to a lasting drop in crime, but acknowledges privacy concerns.

ROSS MCNUTT: There is a trade off between security and some aspects of privacy. By the fact that we’re actually able to provide useful information about multiple crimes per mission and contribute to solving everything from murders to- in the case you saw- a necklace snatch, that allows us to provide more security with less loss of privacy than any of the other options that are out there.

DOUG IKETANI: I’m sure that people once they find out that this experiment went on they might be a little upset but knowing that we can’t see into their bedroom windows, we can’t see into their pools, we can’t see into their showers, you know, I’m sure they’ll be ok with it.

With the amount of technology out in today’s age, with cameras on ATMs, every 7/11, every supermarket, pretty much every light pole, all the license plate cameras, the red light cameras, people have just gotten used to being watched, for the most part.

AMANDA PIKE: For now, deputies are back to patrolling the streets of Compton from the ground.

DOUG IKETANI: We’re sticking with our traditional policing techniques and tactics- just boots in the ground- driving around the neighborhoods, stopping the bad guys and waving on the good folks.

AMANDA PIKE:  In the meantime, McNutt continues to pitch his technology to police departments across the country. In a few years he hopes to double the system’s range, to watch over larger cities like San Francisco or Washington DC with wide-area surveillance.