The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has been testing an innovative surveillance system that enables officers sitting in front of large electronic displays to watch people move around the city of Compton from a bird’s-eye view.
The system can coordinate with static on-the-ground surveillance, such as street-level security cameras, to allow police to track a person of interest from above, and identify him from the ground.
The so-called Persistent Surveillance System (PSS) — that’s a brand name — captures in real time (and then stores) film footage of a prescribed area from an aircraft, allowing police either to take down a suspect as a crime unfolds, or to piece together evidence identifying a suspect once that suspect’s movements have been verified and cross-checked with identifying features (such as hair, tattoos, clothing) captured from land-based surveillance.
As tested, the system is reportedly designed to capture a live feed continually for six hours at a time, and to encompass an area of 25 square miles using high-resolution cameras that can capture the movements of both pedestrians and automobiles.
Gizmodo reports the PSS system has also been tested in Baltimore and in Dayton, Ohio — although the Compton experiment had remained a guarded secret until an April 11 story by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the extent of its use. Before then, according to one L.A. sheriff’s official, the project was intentionally kept “pretty hush-hush” out of concern over backlash from citizens leery of “the eye in the sky, the Big Brother…”
That sounds like a reasonable fear on the citizens’ part. “Plenty of critics,” says Gizmodo, “argue the technology is an ominous invasion of privacy: Video surveillance free of any traditional technological barriers, tracking everyone and everything that moves in a city.”
Ross McNutt, owner of the Ohio-based PSS, says the technology is similar to “a live version of Google Earth, only with TiVo capabilities.” He also says there’s no reason to believe the technology can’t be improved, with only a few years’ time, to cover an area as large as 50 square miles, which is larger than the land area of a city like San Francisco.