After a crime occurs, law enforcement officials move quickly to gather and react to facts as they piece together what happened. New technology hints at a future where police won’t be limited by the arrow of time, allowing them to look into the past to solve the crime.

Real-time tracking helps police investigate crime
An Ohio-based technology company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, developed a camera system that gives law enforcement agents the ability to monitor a wide area from a single screen. Mounted on a small Cessna plane, the 300-pound array of video cameras can record public activity covering a 2-mile radius. Although the resolution of the images is not sufficient to identify faces or license plates, the time-based tracking clearly shows movement that may be of interest to detectives investigating a crime.

Increased video image resolution in surveillance cameras raises privacy concerns. Click To Tweet

Described as “a live version of Google Earth only with full Tivo capabilities,” the wide-area surveillance system gives agents the ability to follow a criminal’s movements after the incident has already occurred. Captured footage can be monitored in real-time, or viewed later to allow authorities to isolate a time and place for detailed study.

Development of the technology began as a way to counter the IED attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military innovations aimed at detecting roadside bombs and apprehending their creators included aerial cameras, which could trace the device back to its origin. Persistent tested their cameras in a handful of cities, including a nine-day experiment that took place two years ago in California.

“We literally watched all of Compton during the time that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people,” Ross McNutt, president of Persistent, told PolicyMic. “Our goal was to basically jump to where reported crime occurred and see what information we could generate that would help investigators solve the crimes.”

Increased image resolution raises privacy concerns
McNutt claims the cost of operating the whole system is less than that of one helicopter—monitoring an area 10,000 times larger than what a single chopper could cover—but cities are not ready to adopt the technology. Sgt. Doug Iketani, who supervised the Compton project, did not feel the image resolution was sufficient to merit day-to-day use, and thus financial investment by the department.

Higher resolution could help validate or substitute for eyewitness accounts of a crime, allowing the cameras to contribute directly to the case. However, there is a tension between increasing image quality and infringing on the privacy of citizens when used. With the ability both capture and replay the past, massive surveillance systems could gather information about innocent civilians.

Stephen Rushin, a law professor at the University of Illinois, noted that there are not many limitations in place for domestic surveillance, even in the case of red light cameras and automatic license plate readers in use for years. The lack of nationwide regulations could leave people at risk for possible invasions of privacy.

“Much of the Supreme Court’s previous treatment of police surveillance has rested on the belief that individuals have no expectation of privacy in public places,” said Rushin, “and that surveillance technologies that merely improve the efficiency of police investigations comport with the Fourth Amendment.”

The proliferation of mobile devices with phones and social networks built in have already changed our collective expectations of privacy. As the ability to snap a video from anywhere became pervasive, law enforcement more easily adopted better crime detection tools. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of police departments in the U.S. using some surveillance technology increased from 20 to 70 percent. Rushin calls this radical shift the “digitally efficient investigative state,” where traditional investigation is significantly improved through technology.

'People have just gotten used to being watched.' Click To Tweet

Although concerns were raised, it was not privacy but the lack of transparency about the surveillance experiment which prompted Compton Mayor Aja Brown to call for a citizen privacy protection policy. This would require authorities to notify the public before installing monitoring equipment. According to the Los Angeles Times, the local government has plans to place 75 cameras throughout the city, having experienced good results from 15 video camera installed in nine city parks.

“People have just gotten used to being watched,” said Iketani, quoted by PBS Newshour.

Police focus on response to crimes
The amount of data collected through wide-area surveillance, as well as the low quality of the captured images, makes impossible for detectives to monitor everything happening in a city on the hope of catching a crime in progress. Law enforcement agencies are more focused on responding to crimes than monitoring local citizens, so many of the privacy concerns are impractical.

“We get a little frustrated when people get so worried about us seeing them in their backyard,” McNutt told The Washington Post. “We can’t even see what they are doing in their backyard. And, by the way, we don’t care.”

The financial cost of wide-area surveillance could drop with the increasing availability of unmanned aerial vehicles. Even so, it may be years before this type of real-time recording gives law enforcement agencies the information and evidence they need to make arrests.

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