Live Google Earth for Police Officers – Big Brother is Watching!

The most disturbing development in mass surveillance I have read as of yet and nobody is trying to hide it …anymore at least.

The Centre for Investigative Reporting, have created a 30 minute presentation on a new technology that has been tested by police officers in Compton, CA that allows police officers to track the movement of every person and vehicle using an aircraft fitted with high-resolution cameras. This aircraft can cover an area of 25 miles² (40km²) for six hours, this is roughly an entire district of a city.

Ross McNutt, who owns the company Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) that developed the system, describes it as,

“…a live version of Google Earth, only with TiVo capabilities.”

The test was carried out without public knowledge to avoid any protests or complaints but the officer testing the equipment gave an exclusive interview of his experience.


A screenshot of what officers can see with annotations. Demonstration carried out by creators, Persistent Surveillance Systems.

Now as you can tell from this screenshot, it is impossible to see who is who and whose car is whose. There is no way you can say definitively – or more importantly, prove in a court of law – that person X was the thief or that person Y was driving the getaway car (each person is roughly a pixel or two in size on-screen) and it is for this reason that police have decided to not purchase the system.

However, don’t take that sigh of relief to soon, most police departments also stated that if the system has higher resolution in the future, it will revisit its decision on whether to purchase the system or not. This means that the police will only buy this when it reaches the ability to identify people and licence plates and that it would stand up as evidence in court.

The presentation also looks at a project called Next Generation Identification (NGI), a server farm located at the FBI complex in West Virginia, where facial and iris scans, fingerprints and other biometrics are stored. The purpose of this mass data storage is so a police officer can take your picture on scene with a tablet and within minutes know who you are and if you have a criminal record.

NGI Server farm

NGI Server farm

Though there is clearly a privacy issue with both of these systems, it is when you aggregate the data from both of them that it becomes truly terrifying.

Imagine the PSS system, with an extremely high-resolution camera (which is what they are now working on to make their product useful to the police) and then combine it with a database like this; you could identify anybody you want sat behind a computer. You could then follow that person or group of people to see where they live, what their habits are, who their friends are, the list goes on.

I am not saying that if (or should I say when) this technology becomes available that our governments would do this, but I’m sure as hell not saying that they wouldn’t either.
So far everybody that I have spoken to about government surveillance have said that they think their government would do something like this and the only reason they don’t (or at least so far as we know) is because of technological restrictions; restrictions that are likely to be lifted in the near future.

At the end of the presentation there is a debate between 3 people: Mike Sena, director at North California’s Regional Intelligence Centre; David Greene, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF); and Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director at the Stanford Centre for Internet and Society. The latter of the two are opposed to mass surveillance and fight for privacy rights around the US; Mr. Sena is responsible for aggregating data from all over the region for efficient use.
I’d like to highlight some of the comments made by these people:

On the topic of whether the surveillance could point to the wrong person:

“In the type of technology  we have demonstrated, or any other technologies they have out there, they aren’t the one thing that says ‘this is person is guilty’…technology alone doesn’t solve any crimes, it’s a combination of people, analysts and technology”
Mike Sena

It’s impossible to disagree with Sena here, he is absolutely right (I almost went into a rant about how a video of a police officer beating a man to death wasn’t enough to convict him, but that’s another topic entirely).
The technology we see police and intelligence agencies use are not enough on their own, they are simply one of the many tools available at their disposal; but will it always be that way? Is this another thing that is only not happening because of technological restrictions? If it were possible to reduce on-the-street policing and replace it with surveillance systems, would we do it? It’s the honest answers to those questions I am worried about most.

We are already on cameras all over the place, so what’s the big deal?
Question from the debate host directed at Jennier Granick

“What’s different is when all that information is aggregated…it means that they know so much about us.”

“There’s an assumption that if there’s less privacy there’s automatically this up-tick in security and that people want that. I don’t think we can just assume that we are trading privacy for security every time and people like it, it’s more complicated than that”
Jennifer Granick

Here we have the proof needed to say with conviction that the only thing stopping the government from watching us in the big brother, sci-fi-esque fashion we see in movies are technological restrictions, the police confirmed this in their reasoning to not buy the Persistent Surveillance Systems product. I am not saying they would abuse it, I am saying that they would implement the systems…which could be abused.

So where does it end? The ability to see a section of a city for a quarter of a day is something they are clearly comfortable with, so what if they could scale this up to a whole city for half a day? Or a whole region for a whole day?

Technology is advancing by the day meaning it is not long before these things are possible. All the PSS system requires to be implemented is higher resolution cameras and I think you’d be stupid to think that won’t be possible any time soon. Look at the NSA revelations, revealed by Snowden; years ago we would have said that the government storing metadata on our phone calls and emails was an absurd thought and anybody who thought it was one of those tin hate wearing nu jobs and yet here we are today, facing that exact issue and a hell of a lot more.

I’m not saying be afraid of your government or that your government are bad people, I am merely informing you of very realistic possibilities and that you need to start asking questions and speaking up when you have a problem.

How much freedom are you willing to give up to be free?


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