Do American Cities Need an “Eye in the Sky”?

Parallax News
Sep 14, 2016 · 3 min read

Parallax News presents big issues broken down into multiple perspectives. This brief looks at 3 different perspectives on aerial surveillance.

The Baltimore Police Department’s use of airplane-mounted surveillance cameras has ignited recent debate about the ethics of using “eyes in the sky” to fight crime. At the center of the conflict is a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, who have also worked with the U.S. military and police departments in both California and Ohio. Persistent Surveillance uses piloted planes to collect video footage of large land areas — video that police departments can then pause, rewind, and magnify to use as evidence in criminal investigations.

I. Ross McNutt

Ross McNutt, founder of Persistent Surveillance, believes privacy concerns about his service come from a lack of familiarity with the technology’s functions. McNutt explains that because the footage is taken from such a great height, individual people appear as indiscernible pixels on a screen. That means the program can’t be used to “see what people are doing in their backyard.” Instead, McNutt says his technology is helpful in tracking general movement, like the passage of a vehicle to or from a crime scene. He also says that Persistent Surveillance should not be viewed as a secretive government spy operation, because the program actually works best when public awareness is high and criminals fear that they may be being watched.

II. Jake Laperruque

Jake Laperruque is a privacy expert with The Constitution Project, a Washington-based think tank. He told Parallax that the enhanced tracking capabilities of Persistent Surveillance are ripe for abuse. Laperruque fears a rogue cop could use the technology to inappropriately monitor the movement of a spouse or personal enemy, but he also worries about institutional abuse with wider implications. He says, just like tracking a criminal from a crime scene to their apartment, police could also follow union leaders or protest organizers from a demonstration through the rest of their day. Police departments could then use that activist’s personal activities to blackmail or otherwise silence their movement. Without greater levels of oversight — like requiring independent, judicial approval for using footage — Laperruque fears aerial surveillance could have a “chilling effect,” making people less likely to exercise their rights or challenge authority.

III. T.J. Smith

T.J. Smith, Media Relations Director for the Baltimore Police Department, held a press conference late last month to explain why aerial surveillance is a vital crime prevention strategy in large cities. Smith says the flights act as a “force multiplier,” allowing police to view much larger areas than on-ground patrols and CCTV cameras. That allows investigators to track the movement of criminals who know how to avoid traditional surveillance in dense cities. The top-down footage can be used to both prove an individual was present at a crime scene, and to locate their whereabouts if they go into hiding. In February, for example, he says aerial surveillance footage helped police locate and arrest a man wanted for the murder of two elderly people.


Further Reading: Bloomberg / Baltimore Sun / CBS

This brief was written by Matthew Meyer.

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