Daily Video

April 28, 2014

New police surveillance technology raises privacy questions


In a recent policing experiment, an airplane flew over Compton, California, using a system of cameras to creating a live video image of the entire city from the sky. The technology, known as wide area surveillance, may become a useful method of catching criminals, but also worries privacy advocates who say it goes too far.

The wide area surveillance system 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.

“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,” said Robert McNutt, president of the company that ran the test in Compton.

The system was adapted from similar technology used in Afghanistan when the military was experiencing problems with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The surveillance allowed them to track the bombers from where the explosion went off back to the house where they were building bombs.

“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,” said McNutt.

However, it is the low resolution of the images that is making the technology a hard sell to police departments.

“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,” said Doug Iketani of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

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

“I think it’s a huge concern. I think it’s another example of technology advancing and completely outpacing the development of the law,” said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization based in San Francisco.

For now, Compton’s police are back to patrolling the streets.

“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,” said Iketani.

Warm up questions
  1. What are some tools that police use to keep their city safe?
  2. Are we guaranteed the right to privacy? If yes, who makes sure that right is upheld? Explain your answer.
Discussion questions
  1. Do you think that the Persistent Surveillance System is a valuable tool for the military? What about for U.S. law enforcement?
  2. What are the risks and benefits of using such a system?
  3. Was it ethical to test the system in Compton without alerting the public? Why or why not?
  4. Currently the system is unable to pick up the visual details that could identify license plates or faces, but in the future it may be able to. Would the higher resolution ability change how you felt about the system being used?
Writing prompts

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Does the Fourth Amendment protect us from the kind of large scale surveillance? If it doesn’t protect us, are there any laws that do? If there are not, should those laws be created? What would they say? Explain your answers.

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