The city of Dayton, Ohio is considering deploying a system similar to the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (ARGUS) – the technology that allows up to 36 square miles to be monitored at once – without having to wait for the FAA’s drone rules to be issued.
The program does not have to be concerned about those rules because the surveillance would actually be conducted by manned aircraft rather than the unmanned drones so regularly flying over the United States now.
The fact that the program is not actually using a drone also has apparently allowed it to avoid the increased scrutiny afforded to various aspects of the domestic drone program including police use, use by Customs and Border Protection, use by U.S. Marshals, use by the Department of Homeland Security, domestic use by the militaryand many more entities both public and private.
The program was brought to light thanks to a Dayton Police Department presentation entitled “2013 Aerial Surveillance Project” given to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) by Ohio activists.
The program is referred to as “Trusted Situational Awareness,” a name which the ACLU rightly points out is “such a mouthful of euphemisms for surveillance that it almost sounds like a parody.”
According to the presentation a test lasting 8 days was conducted in June of last year during the daylight hours over Sinclair Community College. It is unclear if the people present were made aware or allowed to opt out of the surveillance experiment.
The program, run by Persistent Surveillance Systems, is supposedly important because it “Can be utilized to prevent and minimize acts of terrorism, crime and murder.”
Persistent Surveillance Systems advertises their ultra-powerful – and incredibly unsettling – 96 megapixel “Ground-Based Wide-Area Persistent Surveillance System” in an online brochure hosted on their official website (mirrored here for posterity).
The police slideshow says that the system allows law enforcement to “Identify and interrupt illegal activity while providing valuable forensic intelligence.”
The ACLU says that “forensic intelligence” usually means something like, “keeping records of everything everybody is doing so we can go back and carry out retroactive surveillance whenever we need it.”
According to the slideshow, police “selected 18 incidents for aerial surveillance,” among which were a burglary in progress and a robbery spree.
“Analysts were able to track the primary suspect to all of these locations as well as to a Clark gas station prior to the robberies,” the police state.
However, this is all described as a “test operation” and it is not even clear if these are simulated crimes used to establish the analytical power of the system or if they were real.
Some might say that this type of technology is laudable because the last thing anyone wants is more robberies or any crime for that matter.
However, “in America we do not allow the government to look over everybody’s shoulders (literally or figuratively) just in case they engage in wrongdoing. We require the police to have individualized suspicion of wrongdoing before they invade our privacy in that way,” the ACLU explains.
“There is no question that there are some crimes the police will solve if we allow our country to turn into a total surveillance state, but that is a bad tradeoff,” they continue. “The police here want to ‘identify’ illegal activity, which is fine, but not if that’s accomplished by watching all activity.”
Thankfully, local activists, with the help of the ACLU, are calling on people to fight back against this effort.
In a call to action they point out, “The police department’s proposed guidelines do not require a warrant prior to surveillance; lack clear retention and sharing policies; and fail to provide for independent oversight.”
According to the ACLU of Ohio, the police department gave concerned citizens a proposed policy to cover the program and after receiving feedback, provided an updated policy.
The updated policy contained “a few small changes, [which don’t] address the substantive concerns shared with the police department,” according to Melissa Bilancini of the ACLU of Ohio.
The program is now on the agenda for an April 9 special meeting of the Dayton City Commission.
As the ACLU rightly points out, “Although this issue has flown beneath the drone radar because it involves manned aircraft, the issues at stake are much the same.”
The issues, of course, are widespread warrantless surveillance with little to no oversight, in effect ushering in a pervasive and pernicious surveillance state.
According to the ACLU, “ultimately the same kinds of protections that are so vital in the face of drone technology should also be extended to manned aircraft. There’s no rational reason why adding a human being to a surveillance craft should change the privacy protections that we create against aerial surveillance.”
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