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There was a time when I spent a good part of every day making sure I wasn’t being watched. Yes, I was paranoid, but not without good reason. After all, I was working overseas as an undercover operative for the CIA.
As a CIA officer, life was essentially a series of surveillance detection routes —driving, biking, walking or taking public transportation around any number of foreign cities while trying to determine if I was being followed, filmed or photographed.
So as I drove around Dayton, Ohio, on a mission for “TechKnow” to examine a controversial new wide-range surveillance technology, the nagging suspicion of being watched was all too familiar to me.
Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), the Dayton-based company potentially monitoring my movements from above, has developed a whole new generation of tools to track suspicious characters. Hawkeye II, its most recent invention, consists of a dozen high-resolution cameras mounted on an aircraft. It can take images within a 25-mile radius every second for nine hours at a time.
PSS technology has been used to assist law enforcement agencies with more than 30 murder investigations in the U.S. and Mexico. Using imagery captured over time, PSS analysts can track murder suspects to their homes or hideouts. They can identify accomplices and locations that suspects visit before, during and after crimes and precisely determine times that suspects drive by ground-based security cameras. They can basically dissect entire criminal networks — all in a matter of days. In short, this overhead surveillance technology could revolutionize policing and law enforcement.
If only they could get beyond the public’s mistrust.
The controversy surrounding PSS demonstrates how technology is outpacing our nation’s privacy laws and how it’s further complicating the ongoing debate about how much we’re willing to compromise in the name of safety and security. PSS has been able to test its technology in several high-crime cities, including Dayton, where Police Chief Richard S. Biehl was completely on board. But when residents found out about an overhead eye in the sky, enough of them were sufficiently outraged that they shot down further testing.
But could these concerned citizens have also shot themselves in the foot? When I met with Biehl, he was adamant that PSS could effectively deter crime and make Dayton a safer place. And he doesn’t want it to be a secret. Unlike the foreign intelligence services I used to fear were observing me in a completely clandestine manner, Biehl would like potential criminals to know that they are being watched. Maybe then they would think twice about committing crimes.
Certainly back when I was with the CIA, I never would have committed an operational act if I knew it was all being captured and documented from above. (We would be seeing more CIA officers caught red-handed if they were being imperceptibly surveilled by other countries.)
The average American is caught on camera 30 times a day, and most people never think twice about it.
I’ll admit to harboring reservations about PSS technology and its implications. Having grown up during the Cold War — when the bad guys were those regimes that surveilled their citizens’ every move and “1984” was the book that most influenced me — I’ve always maintained a healthy distrust of government, especially its technically equipped monitors. The mere notion of cameras tracking the movements of an entire city made my blood run cold.
But at PSS headquarters, Ross McNutt, the company’s president and developer of the technology, showed me both the system’s capabilities — catching the movements of criminals in real time — and its limitations. A person or vehicle appears as a pixel, essentially a moving dot on the screen. The limited resolution is such that you can’t tell what race or gender someone is.
Also, it’s not as if the system is used to monitor ordinary people going about their business around town. Say someone is gunned down in the street and there are no witnesses or none who come forward. Police officers provide PSS with a report of the crime and its approximate time. If one of PSS’s camera-equipped planes was deployed that day, PSS analysts and police officers can then track the killer (and any accessories) from the scene of the crime for hours before, during and after the event. Even without any witnesses or traditional leads, PSS imagery could lead to identification of perpetrators, arrests and, according to Biehl and McNutt, a drastic reduction in crime.
On huge screens at PSS, I was able to watch several killings caught on camera as they unfolded: accomplices congregating beforehand and establishing choke points to prohibit their victim’s escape, a victim toppling to the ground, a shooter on the run, getaway cars racing through the city to their safe houses. I have to admit I was pretty darn impressed. When you’re being surveilled like this, there is literally nowhere to hide.
I left Dayton persuaded that the good afforded by this generation of surveillance technology far outweighs the bad — no matter the public’s legitimate concerns. After all, we’ve grown accustomed to and relatively accepting of a network of privately maintained security cameras on the ground. The average American is caught on camera 30 times a day, and most people never think twice about it. And it should be noted that PSS has worked diligently to develop sound privacy policies and even reached out to its most likely and vocal nemesis, the ACLU.
Other applications for this generation of surveillance technology range far and wide — literally — not only for crime detection but also for helping locate survivors in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and the Iowa floods. PSS technology can also be used to manage large-scale or high-profile events; with it, we might have caught the Boston Marathon bombers in a matter of hours, if not minutes, and thereby saved at least one life lost, that of slain MIT police officer Sean Collier.
So as I drove around Dayton with that all-too-familiar feeling of being watched, for the first time in my life, there was a small part of me that was actually sort of glad.
Learn more about surveillance innovations on “TechKnow,” Saturday 7 ET/4 PT.