In Baltimore, since 2015, Cessna planes have been conducting wide area surveillance, recording everything that is happening on the ground. The Baltimore Sun reported, “Police have praised the program as effective in producing leads in serious crimes such as shootings and homicides.” Footage from wide area surveillance cameras can be rewound and fast-forwarded, allowing police to search for an individual committing a crime the way one might search for a favorite scene in a movie. Jay Stanley, of the American Civil Liberties Union, has detailed the worrisome aspects of the Baltimore program: how police kept it from the public and how its financing – by a private philanthropist – kept it from going through the democratic process by which the city usually approves programs that affect the public.
Rolling Stone calls Baltimore “ground zero for the military surveillance technology that is slowly making its way from the battlefields into the hands of police departments across the country.” Militarization of American police forces is becoming more and more common and, as a result of digital-age technologies and the use of smaller-scale surveillance cameras both publicly and privately, many people living in the United States today believe they have no privacy and, indeed, no right to expect privacy. They are misinformed.
Use of mass wide area surveillance is becoming more common too. On Wednesday, June 14, the Miami-Dade County Public Safety and Health Committee will reconsider a resolution to bring it to their local skies. Thanks to the work of activists, including Defending Rights and Dissent, the original resolution was met with great resistance. You can read about that, and about what you can do now to help, here.
The resistance has to do with the vastness of the program’s scope. The Miami-Herald describes it as “sophisticated aerial surveillance capable of photographing everyone outside for 32 square miles.” The ACLU of Florida says it is “an extremely powerful technology that has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of our public spaces, and the relationship between the individual and his or her government.” But to Persistent Surveillance Systems, the Ohio-based company that provided the wide area surveillance system being used in Baltimore, and the one being considered for use in Miami-Dade County, the program is just one of their tools to “make our families and our neighborhoods safe places to live and work.”
Let’s examine this surveillance technology a bit more closely. Wide area surveillance footage has low resolution, and individuals and vehicles appear as dots when the footage is viewed on a computer screen. Ross McNutt, the president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, told Bloomberg Businessweek “the dots moving along the sidewalks and streets are mere pixels to him. Nothing more.” Of course, to law enforcement agency officials who are analyzing the footage after a crime has been committed, the goal is to translate the dots into specific individuals and vehicles. The concern with that is, as The Hill reported, “Persistent surveillance allows users to track mosque congregations, protesters, abortion clinic visitors, Alcoholics Anonymous members, and gun show attendees.” McNutt told Businessweek, “If anyone else wants to project identifying features onto them (the dots)—sex, race, whatever—that’s their doing, not his.”
To us here at Defending Rights and Dissent, “their doing” —and specifically who “they” are—is a great concern. And, as Jay Stanley pointed out, technology is moving incredibly fast and “we can expect that eventually the Cessna will be replaced by a far cheaper drone, the attached cameras will become even more powerful, and the analysis will be automated by ever-smarter AIs.” In other words, this is the beginning of a new phase of surveillance, not the end. Big Brother isn’t sitting still.
What needs to be done? Brian Hofer, the chair of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission and a past DRD Patriot Award winner who works for police transparency in Oakland, California, put it perfectly when he said, “We must institutionalize limits to surveillance, prohibit secret uses, require maximum oversight and transparency, and impose penalties for misconduct.”
Limits: That means we need to know what kinds of activities surveillance footage is targeting. As Jay Stanley wrote, we don’t want it to be “bank robbers today, jaywalkers tomorrow.”
Prohibit secret uses: As Howard Smith, the executive director of the ACLU, said to CBS Miami, “It may be helpful to law enforcement but you don’t put it online until you have protections for privacy. Who is being surveilled? How long will they be surveilled? Who has access to the data?” The answers to these questions matter, and they need to be decided in a public forum.
Require maximum oversight and transparency, and impose penalties for misconduct: As Businessweek reported, Ross McNutt “believes the technology would be most effective if used in a transparent, publicly acknowledged manner.” He believes that if people know they are being watched, they will be less likely to commit crimes. And, as Nathan Freed Wessler, of the ACLU, wrote, “… it is essential that accurate information about such surveillance be available to the public, and that strict rules be in place to protect against unjustified mass surveillance or warrantless collection of private information.”
Yes, the technology for wide area surveillance exists. It came from warfare. Before working at PSS, Ross McNutt created Angel Fire, the surveillance system that let the U.S. know who was planting roadside bombs in Iraq, at the request of the Pentagon. But until we know who, what, where, when and why to surveil—and who, what, where, when, and why not to surveil—spy planes shouldn’t be flying over us. We need any surveillance to be mindful, not mindless. The people in America are entitled to nothing less.