City-Wide Drone Surveillance By the Dept. of Homeland Security?

The Department of Homeland Security recently put out a call for a “Wide Area Surveillance System” capable of monitoring five to ten square kilometers (about two to four square miles). Homeland Security wants this system to fit on a manned P-3 Orion spy plane or one of the two Predator drones DHS already has. Homeland Security wants this system to be capable of “persistent” surveillance (i.e., constantly monitor an area for as long as the craft is airborne) as well as seeing tens to hundreds of kilometers when not in persistent mode. Homeland Security also wants the collected video to be transmitted in near real-time (i.e., 12 seconds or less) to a control room or a beyond the line of sight mobile control room. The surveillance platform should be equipped with infrared cameras for nighttime monitoring and “automated, real time, motion detection capability that cues a spotter imager for target identification.”

I’ve written about the militarization of law enforcement here and the use of drones domestically here and here, so my opinions on the rise of the surveillance state should be well known to my readers. What we’re seeing with this call by Homeland Security is not the beginning of widespread domestic surveillance, but it is a leap forward. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, technology developed to fight insurgents and Al Qaeda will find its way back to the U.S. But the question remains: why is the federal government using that technology on its own citizens?

And as Wired’s Danger Room points out, the platform Homeland Security wants is already outdated. The Army’s ARGUS camera can view 36 square miles at once, and the Air Force’s Gorgon Stare can monitor an entire city at once. There is also talk of a the development of a fleet of spy blimps by the military, which will will generate 274 terabytes of information every hour. So I begin to wonder: is this “wide area surveillance system” just a test project for these larger systems? But that’s not my only question. Who will process all this data? Where will it be stored? For how long? Why is this data even needed? How does it improve homeland security? Not only do I have huge privacy concerns about this system, but it will also cost a fortune to develop and use. Is this really the best use of our money right now?

Thankfully, someone else (other than bloggers, that is) is eager to put a halt on the expansion of domestic surveillance by law enforcement and the federal government: the Supreme Court of the United States. Yesterday, the Court handed down its opinion in United States v. Jones, and you can find recaps here and here. The big take away is that the Court unanimously (!) agreed that law enforcement authorities could not attach a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s car and track his every move for a period of time without a probable-cause warrant. The Court rejected the argument (offered by the federal government) that this was not a search. But this opinion will likely require many future lawsuits because the Justices were not crystal clear about when exactly law enforcement authorities would need to get a warrant for such surveillance. Regardless, I am happy with the result, especially considering the federal government stated that this was a common surveillance technique by law enforcement–having used it thousands of times per year.

Prior to the Jones decision, my belief was that the surveillance state was on the rise–that the federal government and law enforcement authorities would seek (and receive) the tools to increase surveillance of citizens. I also believed such tools would likely be military in nature, due to the ready supply coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. After Jones though, I have a bit more hope–but just a bit. I hope it is the beginning of a push back. While I can understand some domestic use of drones (e.g., along the border), I do not have much sympathy for city-wide drone surveillance seemingly just for the heck of it. Knowing a drone is hovering over me doesn’t make me feel safer. It makes me feel angry that my own government not only feels it needs to watch me at all times, but that it also feels it can. Technology once used against Al Qaeda should not be so easily used against citizens.

What do you think? Leave your comments below.

One thought on “City-Wide Drone Surveillance By the Dept. of Homeland Security?

  1. The American public is used to being lied to about the level of domestic surveillance that they are under. When privacy advocates raise alarm about invasive surveillance, they are met by a disingenuous counter-argument that implies that surveillance is targeted, warranted and conducted by a human analyst who must get laborious and time-consuming approval to examine the contents of your e-mail. The truth is that software enabled DRAGNET ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE does not require human intervention and instead automatically and constantly aggregates your data and analyzes it via computer algorithm and Bayesian statistics. This dragnet tracking and surveillance has now spread from data to overhead visual surveillance as overhead arial surveillance is CONVERTED to data. .

    With the recent revelation of one of the most advanced “bird-watching” cameras in the world, the gigapixel camera is emerging from the shadows. ARGUS- Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance is a DARPA program that encompasses the AWARE program recently revealed by Duke University as well as the Gorgon Stare, Angelfire, HAWKEYE and other Wide Area Persistent Surveillance (WAPS) sensors. ARGUS is a 1-50 gigapixel Infra-Red camera that records Wide Area Motion Imagery (WAMI) across a 50 square mile area with enough clarity to identify and track individual pedestrians and vehicles. With ARGUS this detailed WAMI produces video so detailed that tracking and identification of individuals becomes possible with software-enabled automatic forensic analysis. This dragnet surveillance and automatic tracking and archiving of all civilian activities is presently being pursued for use by DHS for DOMESTIC SURVEILLANCE.

    Persistent Stare Exploitation and Analysis System,(PerSEAS), is a DARPA program that uses Video and Image Retrieval and Analysis Tool (VIRAT) and the Persistent Motion Imagery Analysis Tool for Exploitation, or PerMIATE. This software enables Automatic Object Recognition and tracking software to conduct dragnet surveillance of all moving objects present in the WAMI footage created by ARGUS. PerSEAS software automatically generates geotag data for all moving objects and creates “tracklets” or chronomaps of all vehicles and pedestrians and records this data, making it instantanereously available for query. PerSEAS uses multiple computer algorithms to analyze and identify behavior and identify networks of associated persons.

    The combination of ARGUS and PerSEAS creates an environment of DRAGNET AUTOMATED TRACKING AND SURVEILLANCE across entire cities. DHS has already been actively pursuing WAMI for domestic spying and plans to mount this dragnet WAPS over cities in the USA has already begun. Blue Devil, the massive spy blimp was recently deflated after it was marketed to carry ARGUS over the USA. The PerMIATE software is not for tracking terrorists, it is for tracking everyone, all the time..

    Just like the NSA spying program, humans do not identify you for surveillance and then begin watching you….A COMPUTER IS AWLAYS WATCHING YOU, TRACKING YOU AND ARCHIVING THE DATA. A simile to this would rather then a cop getting permission to search through the hay for a needle, all the hay is being poured through a sift all the time in search for needles.