Police enforcement using drones is nothing new, but Los Angeles County Sheriff Department have been quietly experimenting with something completely new: watching crime unfold in real-time via drone surveillance. And their most recent testing ground has been none other than Compton. What would Ice Cube think?
A creepily-named Ohio company called Persistence Surveillance Systems has developed a state-of-the-art technology that allows cops to fly small planes equipped with hi-res cameras all over the city. The drones can fly for up to six hours and record a 25-square-mile patch of land, delivering a constant livestream of footage to officers and allowing them to watch crime unfold in real-time. You can rewind footage, zoom in and track specific individuals and cars as they move around the map. It's like a live crime version of Google Earth.
The resulting footage looks incredibly similar to the first Grand Theft Auto game, which created a 2D universe of constant crime. It's also city-wide surveillance on an unprecedented scale. So is this a logical step towards effective crime-fighting, or yet another sinister step towards monitoring our every last movement?
The Centre for Investigative Reporting looked at a number of surveillance techniques being used by police, but the drones over Compton part begins at 8 minutes:
Compton's violent crime rate in 2012 was triple the US average, so the cameras probably haven't been short on crimes to watch – but it's only now that the LAPD have come clean about the trial programme. As Sergeant Doug Iketani explains in the video: "We kept this project a secret from everybody as we know that people aren't comfortable with Big Brother." NO SHIT.
Thus far, the project was been put on hold as the technology wasn't advanced enough to zoom in on individual faces, but it's surely only a matter of time before that advance happens. As Gizmodo note, that might not even be necessary – CCTV and stoplight cameras on the ground can sufficiently fill in the blanks.
If police are flying surveillance drones over cities to watch crime, who's to say that in five years time we won't all be watched over by machines in the sky? Will we be arrested for chucking cigarette butts or dropping a Coke can?
Iketani argues that the American public once rejected streetlights because they didn't want the government to monitor people's behaviour at night. Eventually they came round – like they will with drones, he claims.
Somehow, this feels slightly different. What do you think? Are surveillance drones A-OK if they're catching criminals, or is the line between offender and law-abiding citizen blurrier than you think?
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot
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