Wide Area Surveillance Secretly Tested in Compton, CA

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The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) recently listed the top seven mass surveillance tools being used by law enforcement, and through their research, uncovered that the city of Compton, California was secretly used as a trial location for a nine-day aerial surveillance program in 2012 — without notifying any citizens or even the mayor, Aja Brown.

The CIR classifies the program as an example of “wide-area surveillance,” which in this case, involved a manned Cessna plane (as supposed to a drone). For nearly two weeks, the plane “…recorded low-resolution images of every corner of the 10.1-square-mile city and beamed them to the local Sheriff’s Department station.”

During that period, deputies are reported to have observed incidents including “fender benders, a string of necklace-snatchings and a shooting.” However, this type of surveillance is different in that not only were deputies able to watch the streaming video footage in real-time, but they also had the ability to pause and rewind. A reporter at CIR, G.W. Schulz, describes it as “Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city.”

The company that conducted the program, Persistent Surveillance Systems, claims that the surveillance footage was so low-resolution that, “…each individual appears as a single pixel — or nearly discerning enough to detect race, sex and other distinguishing characteristics,” according to Ross T. McNutt, the company’s president.

As for the concerned citizens who feel their privacy was intruded upon, the Sheriff’s Department feels justified in not notifying the public, seeing as citizens already had a sense that they were being monitored due to the fact that the city had recently installed several surveillance cameras on the ground.

Compton, which has long had a reputation for being crime-ridden, plans to install roughly 75 surveillance video cameras throughout the city in the coming months, at a cost of $2.7 million. The hope is that new surveillance will help deter criminal activities, along with solving crimes that are consistently committed. With that, it would not be surprising if Compton, or other similar cities with crime issues, continues to serve as a testing ground for new surveillance devices and techniques.

Some of the other forms of surveillance that made the CIR’s list include facial-recognition software, license plate scanners (or ALPRs), and streetlights that can record both video and audio.

As more and more of these militaristic forms of surveillance become available to local law enforcement departments, the debate as to their use and legality will continue to be discussed.

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