The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the rising use of technology to surveil large swaths of American cities, with obvious applications for law enforcement and government surveillance operations.
Over a three-month period in 2016, a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems flew a small aircraft above high-crime areas in West Baltimore. The plane was equipped with 12 cameras which captured, in exquisite 192-megapixel detail, more than 32 square miles of the city, observing some 23 shootings and other violent crimes as they took place, in real time. This technology, originally pioneered by the U.S. military to assist in raids in Iraq, is now being used to ferret out crime here at home.
This Big Brother-like technology, which is becoming known as “wide-area surveillance” is becoming increasingly affordable and easy to deploy. Law enforcement agencies say wide-area surveillance helps fix the problem of police inability get to be everywhere at all times. So far, most law enforcement agencies appear reluctant to publicly endorse the technology for fear of backlash. Their concern is whether privacy-minded citizens will accept the notion of being subject to constant surveillance by police.
The problem is that most of these technologies are being deployed, at least at the moment, by private businesses rather than the police. However, many state and federal agencies have expressed interest in, and familiarized themselves with, the technology. Of course, the initial focus for the government entities is on “national security” and not law enforcement per se, but it is only a matter of time until that focus quietly shifts to criminal investigations.
This wide-area surveillance technology is becoming more and more affordable as it develops from off the battlefield and into our American cities and towns. Not long ago, these high-resolution cameras cost upwards of $500,000 each, but their price has fallen to just $82,000 to $140,000 at present. The next iteration will cost half of that. These cameras weigh less than 5 pounds each and can be mounted to small drones that hover some 3,000 feet above, just out of eyesight. These cameras can also be mounted innocuously to the sides of buildings and made to look like ordinary security cameras.
The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, but it only applies to law enforcement watching us in public in certain circumstances. As wide-area surveillance technology rolls out, it is likely to generate considerable debate within the courts about our definition of privacy. “These wide-area surveillance systems give the government unprecedented power. It gives them a time machine to look into people’s past and learn details about their private lives,” says Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “Again and again this technology has jumped ahead of where the courts are. This is quantitatively different from other forms of aerial surveillance we’ve seen in the past.”
The attorneys at Hernandez & Hamilton, PC are leaders in the area of search and seizure litigation. They have extensive experience in spotting new and expanding areas of the law and fighting to protect your rights against cutting-edge government overreach. If you or a loved one are under investigation or have been accused of committing a crime, call a Tucson criminal defense attorney at Hernandez & Hamilton, PC today to schedule a free consultation.