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Dark clouds pass over the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 1, 2013.
Dark clouds pass over the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 1, 2013. Susan Walsh—AP

New Surveillance Cameras Can See for Miles and Hours

Feb 05, 2014

This isn’t your father’s surveillance camera.

A new class of surveillance cameras able to monitor an area the size of a small city for hours at a time has won the hearts of law enforcement in the U.S. but has privacy advocates worried about a creeping surveillance state.

Built by the company Persistent Surveillance Systems, the cameras -- mounted on a fixed wing aircraft -- can spot people up to 25 miles away, The Washington Post reports. The cameras can’t discern the defining details of any individuals—people and vehicles simply show up as pixels—but with today’s location-tracking technology, surmising an identity from a person’s whereabouts and movements is no difficult task.

The company’s president, Ross McNutt, says he hopes to deploy the systems around the country to help solve and deter crime. The cameras have been flown in police demonstrations over Dayton, Ohio, where the company is based, as well as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Compton, California. According to the Post, the cameras have already been used to solve crimes in Dayton.

Sensitive to the concerns of privacy advocates, McNutt, a former Air Force officer who helped design a similar surveillance system for use in wartime Iraq, consulted with the American Civil Liberties Union to develop a privacy policy for the systems. Police are, the Post reports, not supposed to look at the images collected until a crime has already been reported. Other rules govern how long data from the cameras can be kept -- but that hasn’t satisfied privacy advocates' most basic concerns about the nature of persistent, pervasive surveillance.

“If you turn your country into a totalitarian surveillance state, there’s always some wrongdoing you can prevent,” Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post. “The balance struck in our constitution tilts toward liberty, and I think we should keep that value.”

[The Washington Post]

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