The Conversation

Police experiment with real-time universal surveillance

The Surveillance State goes big in an article from Gizmodo, which describes early testing of a "God's-eye" system that collates information from multiple sources on the ground, giving the authorities what inventor Ross McNutt describes as "a live version of Google Earth, only with TiVo capabilities."

What McNutt's system does grows more amazing, and perhaps more chilling, as you read more about how it works:

It's sort of similar to what your average satellite can do—except, in this case, you can rewind the video, zoom in, and follow specific people and cars as they move around the grid. It's not specific enough to ID people by face, but, when used in unison with stoplight cameras and other on-the-ground video sources, it can identify suspects as they leave the scene of a crime.

The PSS system has been tested in cities including Baltimore and Dayton, and, last year, police officers in Compton used it to track crimes, including a necklace snatching. In one case, they could track a criminal as he approached a woman, grabbed her jewelry, and then ran to a getaway car. They eventually drove out of frame, which meant they weren't caught—but, as the Compton police explain in this video, the system told them that this particular car was involved, at the very least.

If the system's inputs grow numerous enough, perps won't be able to "drive out of frame" anymore.  There won't be a frame.

The neat trick here is the way input from different sources is collated in real-time by the computer, essentially linking many sets of electronic "eyes" into one continuous tracking stream.  (Gizmodo compares this to something out of the bad Denzel Washington sci-fi movie "Deja Vu," but give the system enough inputs and processing power, and it'll be more like the bad Shia LaBeouf movie "Eagle Eye.")  Imagine real-time tracking that jumps between stop-light cameras, ATM cameras, storefront security systems, and whatever else it can tap into - stitched together as it happens, not after weeks of detective work.  

As with most other aspects of the Surveillance State, it's creepy because of its capabilities, but also potentially valuable.  Having such a system online would come in handy when dealing with something like the Tsarnaev brothers' Boston Marathon bombing rampage.  For that matter, many a purse-snatching victim would be glad to know the police can swiftly track and identify the thief.  The deterrent value against criminals could be considerable.

But of course, it's easy to imagine such capabilities being abused as well.  The speed and power of electronic surveillance turn old-fashioned analog concepts into disturbing invasions of privacy.  Police officers enforcing speed limits with helicopters and airplanes are one thing, but doing it with a swarm of robot drones is another; people get nervous when the eye in the sky never blinks.  Conversely, an electronic system that can locate you within a matter of minutes is troubling... but wouldn't you be glad for such a system if you were kidnapped, or stranded on the side of a mountain awaiting rescue?

Building public confidence in the human element of the system, through strict accountability and respect for due process, is more important than ever.  The system's eyes are tireless, and its brain thinks with quantum speed, so we must be able to put some faith in the quality of its heart.


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