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Record and rewind: Cops quietly test aerial surveillance to track crime

Police are testing a wide-area surveillance system that is like a 'live version of Google Earth, only with a TiVo capability for forensic analysis.'

Because America apparently isn't enough of a surveillance society, and aerial surveillance only works if it is "looking at the right spot," cops have been testing a new wide-area surveillance system that can watch, record and rewind every outdoor activity that happens in a city, every person, every car and every crime. It "is something of a time machine - the entire city is filmed and recorded in real time," reported The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). "Imagine Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city."

Retired Air Force veteran Ross McNutt previously helped build a wide-area surveillance system that provided the military with a "360-degree eye in the sky" to "hunt down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan." Although it wouldn't seem like there's a huge need to hunt down terrorists from above in the United States, McNutt, the creator of Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, decided law enforcement in the U.S. also needed such "gaming-changing" surveillance capabilities.

Instead of needing such powerful surveillance to track suspected terrorists, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department used it to track necklace-snatchers, thieves similar to purse-snatchers, except they were stealing necklaces. PSS high-resolution surveillance cameras were fitted to the belly of small plane, giving the police the power to literally watch the entire city of Compton, CA.

CIR said of the sample image: "Persistent Surveillance Systems’ technology captures in real time a necklace snatching and the getaway car that was involved."

Those aerial cameras can "record a 25-square-mile patch of Earth constantly-for up to six hours." Although the aerial surveillance isn't as powerful as the unblinking, all-seeing 1.8-gigapixel camera of DARPA's ARGUS-IS, McNutt believes that in a few years, the technology will be able to cover an area about "as large as the entire city of San Francisco." He told Gizmodo that his PSS system is like a "live version of Google Earth, only with TiVo capabilities."

"Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter," McNutt told CIR. "But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch."

Why hadn't the citizens of Compton heard of the aerial surveillance? L.A. County Sheriff's Sgt. Doug Iketani told CIR, "The system was kind of 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."

"With wide-area surveillance, all the activity in an entire community or area is monitored with a single camera system," states a PSS "Airborne" brochure (pdf). In one example, it shows image captures of a gang member execution in Philadelphia. The system was used to track the killer and several accomplice vehicles for hours before and after murder. Other examples from Philadelphia include an image from a drug bust and from a "dog fighting investigation" when PSS was used "by Dayton SWAT team to coordinate a raid on the property."

PSS seems to have been tested in Indianapolis as well, since the brochure shows the downtown area and the website has an aerial Brickyard 400 event image and video available for download. Aerial surveillance videos from Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio, are also available.  

I highly recommend for you to read the CIR article in full as it takes "an inside look at the emerging technologies that could revolutionize policing - and how intrusively the public is monitored by the government." If you have about 30 minutes to spare, you might want to watch the "State of Surveillance: Police, Privacy and Technology."

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