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And as Wired’s Danger Room points out, the platform Homeland Security wants is already outdated.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.