Eyes Over Compton: How Police Spied on a Whole City

By Conor Friedersdorf

This is the future if nothing is done to stop it.

In a secret test of mass surveillance technology, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department sent a civilian aircraft* over Compton, California, capturing high-resolution video of everything that happened inside that 10-square-mile municipality.

Compton residents weren't told about the spying, which happened in 2012. "We literally watched all of Compton during the times that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people," Ross McNutt of Persistence Surveillance Systems told the Center for Investigative Reporting, which unearthed and did the first reporting on this important story. The technology he's trying to sell to police departments all over America can stay aloft for up to six hours. Like Google Earth, it enables police to zoom in on certain areas. And like TiVo, it permits them to rewind, so that they can look back and see what happened anywhere they weren't watching in real time. 

If it's adopted, Americans can be policed like Iraqis and Afghanis under occupation–and at bargain prices:

McNutt, who holds a doctorate in rapid product development, helped build wide-area surveillance to hunt down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. He decided that clusters of high-powered surveillance cameras attached to the belly of small civilian aircraft could be a game-changer in U.S. law enforcement.

“Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter,” McNutt said. “But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch.”

A sargeant in the L.A. County Sheriff's office compared the technology to Big Brother, which didn't stop him from deploying it over a string of necklace snatchings.

Sgt. Douglas Iketani acknowledges that his agency hid the experiment to avoid public opposition. "This system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public,"he said. "A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so to mitigate those kinds of complaints we basically kept it pretty hush hush." That attitude ought to get a public employee summarily terminated. 

He also gave this incredible quote:

"Our first initial thought was, oh, Big Brother, we're going to have a camera flying over us. But with the wide area surveillance you would have the ability to solve a lot of the unsolvable crimes with no witnesses, no videotape surveillance, no fingerprints."

Notice that he didn't conclude that the "wide area surveillance" wouldn't be like Big Brother after all, just that Big Brother capabilities would help to solve more crimes. 

So why not try them out?

He later explains that while the public may think its against this, we'll get used to it:

I'm sure that once people find out this experiment went on they might be a little upset. But knowing that we can't see into their bedroom windows, we can't see into their pools, we can't see into their showers. You know, I'm sure they'll be okay with it. With the amount of technology out in today's age, with cameras in ATMs, at every 7/11, at every supermarket, pretty much every light poll, all the license plate cameras, the red light cameras, people have just gotten used to being watched. 

The CIR story reports that no police department has yet purchased this technology, not because the law enforcement community is unwilling to conduct mass surveillance of their fellow citizens without first gaining the public's consent, but because the cameras aren't yet good enough to identify the faces of individuals. It's hard to imagine that next technological barrier won't be broken soon.

I'd be against mass surveillance of innocents in any case. 

But it's especially galling to see law enforcement professionals betray the spirit of democracy by foisting these tools on what they know to be a reluctant public because they deem it to be prudent based on a perspective that is obviously biased.

Many Americans elect their own sheriffs. This is the future if nothing is done to stop them.

*An earlier version of this article erroneously called the aircraft a drone.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/04/eyes-over-compton-how-police-spied-on-a-whole-city/360954/