Big Brother's Eye In The Sky - Persistent Surveillance SystemsBy PNW Staff September 05, 2016 Share this article:
We may still have some expectation of privacy while we are in our homes, but when outside under a clear sky, there is no longer any assurance that we are not being watched, thanks to a new surveillance system being employed by the police in some cities.
First developed for the US military to monitor Iraqi cities and track those who were planting explosive devices, the technology has now been improved and applied to domestic law enforcement.
Far removed from a circling police helicopter called out for a dangerous pursuit, this system mounts a specially designed 192 mega pixel wide-angle camera array together with digital recording. It has caused a quantum leap in urban surveillance that allows police to record up to ten hours of footage that covers nearly an entire city.
The company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, based in Dayton Ohio, was started by a man named Ross McNutt. The MIT graduate founded the Center for Rapid Product Development in the Air Force. Originally tasked with creating a battlefield observation platform to track down those responsible for planting IEDs, McNutt mounted a series of six cameras on a small plane in a system dubbed Angel Fire.
With what McNutt describes as "Google Earth with TiVo capability," the system was able to record not just a specific area, but an entire city in real time. Military intelligence could watch a bomb explode then dial the time back until they watched the bomber plant it, then drive from his house.
The civilian version, now mounted in a Cessna and sporting significantly upgraded camera resolution, is being marketed to police departments around the United States and in Mexico.
The mayor of Juarez contracted the Persistent Surveillance Systems to help bring to justice cartel hit squads that were operating with impunity by tracking them back to their safe houses, but the debate has just begun in the United States where Persistent Surveillance Systems has been monitoring Baltimore for months under a blanket of secrecy.
Operating out of a nondescript office above a parking garage, McNutt and his team of pilots and analysts are under contract with the Baltimore Police Department to record the city from above. And the system works frighteningly well.
One recent Saturday, a small plane operated by an ex-Army pilot working for Persistent Surveillance Systems took to the skies with his camera system recording one image every second. He had been up for several hours when a call came through that a group of nuisance dirt bike riders, which had been terrorizing the city, had just hit and then assaulted an off duty police detective.
The police had been unable to catch the bikers for months but with the technicians now watching the images in real time, they were able to track it through the city, past street level cameras and after nearly ninety minutes, identify and arrest the riders.
In another case, a murderer left the police with little evidence until they watched hours-old footage of a figure walking away from the scene, crossing a park, entering a house and emerging to drive away in a vehicle. Both cases brought the police not only to the perpetrators but also their accomplices and linked other pieces of incriminating evidence to build strong cases.
The system works by snapping a series of incredibly high-resolution, wide-angle photos and digitally stitching them together. Up to 10 terabytes of data are stored per day and the "video" can be looked at later, zoomed in and played backwards to track the movements of suspects across the city for hours.
Individual people appear as little more than specks a pixel or two wide in the current system, but it is enough to track anyone to any location. The City of Baltimore has remained tight lipped about the project and it is unknown how many other cities have considered contracting with Persistent Surveillance Systems, except for Los Angeles, California, that recently tried the system.
Ross McNutt approached the ACLU before the project had become public knowledge, though he didn't expect the fearful reaction that his system provoked. Whereas it may be true that there is no legal expectation of privacy while out in public, the thought that our every movement is watched and recorded, ready to be played back by the police or private surveillance contractors is more than a little creepy.
Once again, a system designed in a military environment for use on a guerrilla enemy is being employed against American civilians as a tool of observation and control.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about a concept he called the panopticon in his work Discipline and Punish. The panopticon, an all-seeing presence, enforces compliance through constant observation and is the reason why prisons are now build around a central point of observation.
The citizens, or subjects perhaps, of Baltimore are now living with street corner cameras and aerial video that has built a digital panopticon that watches and records their every move, all without public consent or transparency. So the next time you are out on a city street, just look up and smile to that eye in the sky because you too might be on camera.
"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." (Ecclesiastes 12.13, 14)