By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny
We could make some grand statement about the nature of surveillance in 21st Century America — there’s certainly a grand and frightening statement to be made — but that would obscure the detail. (Do note, though, when you watch the videos, how much the American need for extreme Public Safety — “Daddy, keep us safe” — is invoked in justifying these intrusions.)
That said, from a recent Rolling Stone report on surveillance in Baltimore, here is just the detail, how Americans are being watched by cops of all stripes.
▪ Large urban areas are constantly photographed from 10,000 feet.Using multiple cameras in a plane flying at 10,000 feet and computer-driven “image stitching” software, police can photograph all open traffic and human interactions in five-mile square urban area for hours — and archive everything for later use.
This creates a storable, searchable, time-lapse wide-area “movie” of all street movement. Watch the video above to see it in action. Note that only at the end of the video are privacy issues even mentioned. Note also that the “events” discussed aren’t just planned events, like parades and demonstration, but also events not announced ahead of time, like murders. “Pre-event forensics” assumes constant “just in case” surveillance.
This kind of surveillance is happening now in at least one American city, Baltimore. Benjamin Powers, writing at Rolling Stone (emphasis mine):
Eyes Over Baltimore: How Police Use Military Technology to Secretly Track You“They view people as enemy combatants,” says activist, as cops adopt surveillance, tracking, facial recognition programs designed for war zonesWhen protesters took to the street after police shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, they were greeted by law enforcement in full body armor, flanked by armored vehicles. In the two and a half years and countless shootings since, militarized police have become an all too familiar sight. In response, citizens have overwhelmingly begun to film these interactions on their smartphones, making the technology the eyes of our nation. But as we watch the police, they also watch us – only they don’t use an iPhone. Often, they use military grade surveillance equipment that gives them a much broader view than simple cell phone cameras ever could.The city of Baltimore has, in many ways, become ground zero for the military surveillance technology that is slowly making its way from the battlefields into the hands of police departments across the country. From January to October of last year, police monitored Baltimore’s citizens using a Cessna airplane outfitted with military grade surveillance technologies multiple times, without their knowledge, that were developed for overseas war zones. The Baltimore Police Department has used surveillance technology such as large-scale aerial surveillance, advanced cell phone tracking and facial recognition technology on Baltimore’s citizens, yet these technologies have had little to no oversight from city government, and most have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Examined together, these surveillance technologies demonstrate an extended record of secret surveillance by the Baltimore Police Department. In August of 2016, the Department of Justice reported that the BPD needed greater oversight and transparency.Yet police using military surveillance technology is increasingly common.
There’s much more about these cameras, and who is financing their use, in the article. But cameras are just the start.
▪ Hardware and software tracks faces and captures cell phone communication. Hardware that mimics cell phone towers and facial recognition software have also been used to “oversee” Baltimore:
While PSS is the most recent example, Baltimore’s citizens have also faced police armed with military technology to track cellphones and identify faces that was implemented and honed overseas. Both of these create very real problems for everyday people.Since 2010, and potentially prior, Baltimore has been subjected to a technology developed for overseas battlefields called Stingray, otherwise know as a cell site simulator. The technology mimics a cellphone tower, causing nearby phones to connect to it. In the pinging back and forth once connected, a Stingray knows not only what cell phones are in the area, but also where they are, the calls they’ve made, and, importantly, the conversations themselves.This data capture isn’t just limited to the individual that police might be looking to track, but also all the other phones on the network.
About facial recognition surveillance, consider this, from the four-year-old NY Times report by Charlie Savage linked above:
Facial Scanning Is Making Gains in SurveillanceThe federal government is making progress on developing a surveillance system that would pair computers with video cameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with researchers working on the project.The Department of Homeland Security tested a crowd-scanning project called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System — or BOSS — last fall after two years of government-financed development. Although the system is not ready for use, researchers say they are making significant advances. That alarms privacy advocates, who say that now is the time for the government to establish oversight rules and limits on how it will someday be used. …The automated matching of close-up photographs has improved greatly in recent years, and companies like Facebook have experimented with it using still pictures.…[R]esearchers on the project say they made progress, and independent specialists say it is virtually inevitable that someone will make the broader concept work as camera and computer power continue to improve.“I would say we’re at least five years off, but it all depends on what kind of goals they have in mind” for such a system, said Anil Jain, a specialist in computer vision and biometrics engineering at Michigan State University who was not involved in the BOSS project.
“Five years off” from 2013 is 2018, and who knows how good they’ve gotten already? Is it deployed yet. The RS article suggests it’s already deployed in Baltimore.
▪ Location-based social media monitoring and tracking has grown frighteningly sophisticated. This one is even scarier. To get a full sense of this system’s power, watch the short marketing video below:
Amazingly powerful as a monitoring and tracking tool. But you knew this had to be possible, right? It just needed someone wealthy enough and authoritarian enough to get it implemented (looking at you, Deep State).
Note the stated goal, announced in the first sentence of the video: “To uncover actionable social media content.” Again, this is a marketing video, selling its features to potential customers.
As the video shows, any content can be tracked using sophisticated filters. And who defines what “actionable” means? The FBI? Militarized urban cops? Attorney General J. Beauregard Sessions? Donald Trump during one of his night-sweat sessions?
And who defines what “actions” might follow such tracking? Obviously, the user, depending on their goal. Which opens wide the field of possibilities. Anyone with access to this system can use it for any purpose they wish. This includes hired, or rogue, mercenary forces like Blackwater (or whatever they’re calling themselves these days). This includes anyone who can buy it. I imagine the range of who could do what to who with this stuff is endless.
But don’t let your mind wander too far into that field of possibilities; you’ll scare yourself.
And you wouldn’t want to do that. The world has already grown scary enough as it is, all on its own.