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

from the because-screw-those-whiners-and-their-'rights' dept

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

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Anonymous Coward says:

Okay, so the cat is out of the bag. What happens next? Resounding silence? Because as he already said “The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in THE PUBLIC” (my uppercase). So the local pols were all on board and they also kept it from THE PUBLIC (you know, the people who elect them) ? That seems to be the implication.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Yeah, we knew the public would hate us for imposing this dystopian nightmare on them, so we did it anyway and just didn’t tell them.”
Stay classy, LAPD.

Can someone sue and get this cavalcade of bad ideas declared unconstitutional? There has to be at least one judge still alive with enough functioning gray matter left to be able to understand “police filming everyone 24/7 = Fourth Amendment violation”.

DSchneider (profile) says:

I really don't understand

I mean I understand why they would want a system like this. Drive by shooting…just roll back the tape and see where the car came from and where it went.

What I don’t understand is why they don’t bring in privacy experts to advise them on these systems. They know the blow back once its found out is going to be huge and possibly get the whole thing shut down. Why not bring in the ACLU, Larry Lessig, etc and say “This is what we’re planning to do, these are the benefits we see to this. What kind of safeguards can we put in place to protect privacy, make this acceptable to the public, and still achieve our goals?”

Maybe there are none and they just continue as they were, but maybe, just maybe there would be a way to keep the system in place, catch bad guys, and still protect the rights of everyone else. Problem is, until they do this we’ll never know.

Anonymous Coward says:

reading the original article

The original article was very pro camera, with only a blip at the end talking about the secret nature of the rollout.

Sure the cameras will help law enforcement solve crimes and may even help prevent crimes in public because of the risk of being caught on camera. However the fact that police declined to talk to the public only helps instill distrust. This causes other problems because the public isn’t willing to help police in the event of a crime. So now the police work will have other road blocks. (I wonder how long it will take them to realize they are causing their own failures?)

In the end I wonder how the cops would feel if the technology was used just to watch their own activities. That way people could watch for abuse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Hate to rain on your parade...

I remember as a kid in the 80’s and early 90’s here in Canada, in my province anyway, on the highways there were sporadic green signs saying “Aerial Surveillance”. My dad, who’s a trucker was telling me it was mostly to scare people and that it would be too expensive to constantly monitor highways with planes.

Sure, times have changed since then, but this is one massive mostly useless (I bet) waste of public money, agains the public with their on money, much much more than those couple highways in semi-rural Canada and its supposed constant aerial monitoring.

Somehow I think now that they talked about it, it’s gonna be scrapped or watered down just so your american rights are just slightly crushed instead of trampled.

aldestrawk says:

The KQED program about PSS quoted one LA sheriff as saying that this was a test and LASD is not planning to use PSS on a regular basis. Not that privacy was the issue that swayed them against adopting it, rather it was cost vs efficacy in solving crimes. The LASD does care about public opinion concerning surveillance insofar as public outcry can serve as an impediment to the adoption of any particular technology by the law enforcement.

Even if the cameras in the plane were higher resolution facial recognition still cannot be applied to the images. That is, unless you can get the person to look up at the plane somehow. One of the LA sheriffs noted that PSS posed the least intrusive surveillance technique compared to the other new technologies coming in to play.

Doyle Hall says:

Police Spying

Somehow spying on innocent people to catch criminals does’t set right with me. Law enforcement needs to know that there are limits to what the public will accept. Being constantly spied on just to do it should remain in the realm of criminal conduct. Privacy has a proper place in society. I slso think that the general public should have evert right to observe law enforcement officers as they go about their work in the public eye. After all, they are on the job,serving us.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Socialism is the message, Marxism is the strategy and Fascism is the goal...

You know that at some point Republicans and Democrats reversed into each other. Anyway you have a one party system since a long time now, remember the Democrat-Republicans (or was it Republican-Democrats)? Your 2 parties are basically the split inside that one party back then.

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