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LA Sheriff's Dept. On New Surveillance Program: We Knew The Public Wouldn't Like It, So We Kept It A Secret

By Tim Cushing

April 17, 2014 "ICH" - "TD" - As we've noted several times before, law enforcement and investigative agencies tend to roll out expanded surveillance systems without bothering to run it by the citizens they're planning to surveil. The systems and programs are deployed, FOIA battles are waged and, finally, at some point, the information makes its way to the public. It is only then that most agencies start considering the privacy implications of their surveillance systems, and these are usually addressed by begrudging, minimal protections being belatedly applied.

Now, it's obvious why these agencies don't inform the public of their plans. They may uses terms like "security" and "officer safety" and theorize that making any details public would just allow criminals to find ways to avoid the persistent gaze of multiple surveillance options, but underneath it all, they know the public isn't going to just sit there and allow them to deploy intrusive surveillance programs.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is using a new surveillance program utilizing the technology of a private contractor doing business under the not-scary-at-all name of "Persistent Surveillance Systems." This gives the LASD a literal eye in the sky that provides coverage it can't achieve with systems already in place. But it does more than just give the LASD yet another camera. It provides the agency with some impressive tools to manipulate the recordings.
The system, known as wide-area surveillance, is something of a time machine – the entire city is filmed and recorded in real time. Imagine Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city.

“We literally watched all of Compton during the time that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people,” [Ross] McNutt [owner of Persistent Surveillance Systems] said. “Our goal was to basically jump to where reported crimes occurred and see what information we could generate that would help investigators solve the crimes.”
As with nearly everything making its way into law enforcement hands these days, this technology was developed and deployed first in battlefields. Persistent Surveillance Systems' first proving grounds were Afghanistan and Iraq, tracking down bombing suspects. All it takes is a cluster of high-powered cameras and a single civilian plane to watch over Compton with warzone-quality surveillance. According to McNutt, the camera system covers "10,000 times" the area a single police helicopter can. McNutt also believes the system can be expanded to cover an area as large as the entire city of San Francisco.

While the cameras aren't quite powerful enough to allow the LASD to make use of another, increasingly popular technological tool -- facial recognition -- this still gives the LASD an unprecedented coverage area. Camera technology continues to improve, so there's no reason to believe a few of McNutt's planes won't someday (possibly very soon) have the power to assist the LASD with adding new mugshots to its databases.

But, as pointed out earlier, where does the public fit into all of this? Were privacy concerns addressed before moving forward with Persistent Surveillance Systems? I'm not even going to try to set up this astounding response from an LASD officer. Just read it:
“The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public,” (LASD Sgt.) Iketani said. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush.”
You know, it's one thing to think this. We know from experience that many law enforcement officials (as well as the rank-and-file) absolutely resent being publicly accountable and having to make the occasional token effort to respect civil liberties, so it's not surprising that the LASD knew the easiest way to avoid a negative public was to lock the public out.

It is, however, quite another thing to come out on record and say this. This shows just how little the LASD actually cares about the public's concerns. The agency knew the public wouldn't be happy and an official comes right out and tells the public that his agency and others don't really care. What they don't know won't hurt them... until it's too late to do anything about it.

This was followed up by another statement from an LAPD official, who noted that frogs generally come around to the idea of being boiled to death.
The center’s commanding officer, Capt. John Romero, recognizes the concerns but equates them with public resistance to street lights in America’s earliest days.

“People thought that this is the government trying to see what we’re doing at night, to spy on us,” Romero said. “And so over time, things shifted, and now if you try to take down street lights in Los Angeles or Boston or anywhere else, people will say no.”
There's no honesty or accountability in these statements. There's only an admission that Los Angeles law enforcement feels the public is there to serve them and not the other way around. Hiding your plans from the public doesn't instill confidence that their rights will be respected. Neither does telling them they'll "get used to it." Instead, it creates an even more antagonistic environment, one where the public is viewed as a nuisance at best by people whose power is derived from the same citizens they so obviously have no respect for.  

 

 

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