Spying On a City [RadioLab]

2015-09-03 22.26.52

As a kid, getting spied on usually meant Mrs. Harper down the street had seen me doing something I shouldn’t be doing, and reporting it to my mom.  As long as I kept clear of Mrs. Harper, I could safely mess around and not get busted.

Now, my computer may be spying on me.  “Cover up the camera on your computer,” I’m warned, “hackers may be watching you.”

Then there’s my phone. If it’s always ready to respond to my “Hey Siri,” how can I know for sure it isn’t listening to other conversations?

And with the Internet of Things, I have to start worrying about whether my refrigerator, my TV, my washing machine, or my toaster are recording my words or movements.  Because “wiretapping” now appears to include the possibility that our microwaves are listening.

Does it Matter?

In our current technological world, our right to privacy regularly butts heads against our desire for safety. Does it matter that we’re being watched when out in public? Maybe surveillance in the public domain is the modern-day equivalent of having a lot of Mrs. Harpers out there, making us all behave better. Maybe?

Yet… there’s something unsettling about imagining a world where there are cameras following us wherever we go. Inside; outside.

 “Who cares?” I hear you say.  “I’m not doing anything illegal, so what does it matter?”

“Have you ever exceeded the speed limit?” I ask, “And not been caught?”  They pause.

Most people probably obey the laws most of the time. Yet it’s incredibly easy to imagine we’ve all broken some law at some time, whether innocently—we didn’t know there was a law against taking a stone from that state beach—or because we figured we could—that speed limit thing.

What would it be like if any and every one of those small, illegal violations were swept up in a system designed to catch everything while it was happening, in the hopes that, if a serious crime had been committed, you could go back in time and review the files?

Eye in the Sky

In RadioLab’s “Eye in the Sky” episode, that capability to go back in time to review film suddenly becomes very real. The program explores the concept of wide-area surveillance, a technology developed under the oversight of Dr. Ross McNutt, a retired Air Force Officer, as a way to combat bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stateside, thinking the technology could be used to fight crimes in U.S. cities, he started his company: Persistent Surveillance Systems. And then he went out to pitch the project to cities around the country.

The basic concept is this: take a small plane, mount a bunch of high-end cameras on it, and fly high over a city for hours, taking and downloading pictures of the city every second. If a crime is committed during that time, go back through the pictures to the crime, and see what happened before and after.

In so doing, you have a potential to trace the criminal through the crime: where did they come from and where did they go.

The show does an amazing job of bringing listeners along on a journey; a journey that explains how the technology was developed, and then shows it in use to track crimes in two different settings—a breaking and entering in Dayton, OH and the murder of a female police officer in Juarez, Mexico. Even as the drama of the crime stories unfold, and the criminals are tracked, the show grapples with the issue of privacy for individuals innocently being filmed. There’s definitely tension between a desire to solve these crimes, and a desire to maintain privacy.

This episode ran in 2015. The technology was being considered by different cities. Dayton, OH tested it and considered entering into a contract, but due to concerns about privacy by a vocal group of citizens, they opted out at that time.

But as reported in an August 23, 2016 Bloomberg Businessweek article, Baltimore, MD started using the technology in January 2016. According to the article, a plane “sometimes flew above the city for as many as 10 hours a day, and the public had no idea it was there.”  Persistent Surveillance Systems “provided the service to the police, and the funding came from a private donor. No public disclosure of the program had ever been made.”

On August 24, 2016, The Washington Post reported, in connection with Baltimore’s use of the technology:

“The flights, which have been conducted without any public notice, amount to a major new development in the debate over privacy and security. Though the images are not crisp enough to show individual faces, researchers have shown that location data collected over time is remarkably distinct, potentially allowing for authorities to identify people and their daily movements.

“As technology permits it, we’re seeing systems that seek to watch everybody all the time,” said Jay Stanley of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.  “This is a giant leap into a real Big Brother future.””

  • Podcast: RadioLab
  • Episode: Eye in the Sky. 6/18/15, 30 minutes
  • RadioLab Hosts: Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich
  • Guest Hosts: Manoush Zomorodi, Alex Goldmark

More Information:

  1. “New Surveillance Technology Can Track Everyone in an Area for Several Hours at a Time,” Craig Timberg, The Washington Post, 2/5/14
  1. “Hollywood-style Surveillance Technology Inches Closer to Reality,” GW Schulz and Amanda Pike, The Center for Investigative Reporting, 4/11/14
  1. “Secret Cameras Record Baltimore’s Every Move From Above,” Monte Reel, Bloomberg Businessweek, 8/23/16
  1. “In Baltimore, the police and a private company are running surveillance flights like never before,” Craig Timberg, The Washington Post, 8/24/16
  1. Baltimore Police Secretly Running Aerial Mass-Surveillance Eye in the Sky, Jay Stanley, ACLU.org, 8/24/16
  1. “State of Surveillance”, Surveillance Projects by The Center for Investigative Reporting
  1. “Ask Us Anything About the Local Surveillance Technologies, the Fourth Amendment and 21st century policing.” Center for Investigative Reporting: archived post on Reddit.
  1. Persistent Surveillance Systems: the surveillance company highlighted in the articles. Described on their web site: “PSS develops highly capable, yet affordable, wide area surveillance systems for city, state, national, and international markets.” Dr. Ross T. McNutt PhD is PSS’s owner
  1. Raytheon Persistent Surveillance Systems: web site discussing Raytheon’s capabilities
  1. “The 5G Revolution: The Internet of Things Meets Everything” (video) 3:36. Goldman Sachs. Short video re: the expectations around 5G and how that affects devices being connected to the internet, including privacy issues.

8 thoughts on “Spying On a City [RadioLab]

  1. Hi Cindy, great blog. I really enjoyed reading this post.
    I haven’t stopped yet to think about all this spying stuff, but I’m pretty sure that we have been spied on for many, many years. Please keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment. I find the issue of privacy both relevant and challenging given the profusion of social media that has made us the product rather than the customer. I suspect we have been spied on; this was one of those stories that made me aware that the spying is done in ways I haven’t thought of. Cindy


  2. #CS5711 I’m a big conspiracy theorist and I do definitely believe that big brother is watching us. It’s no great surprise, that the National Security Agency can pretty much grab phone records of anyone it wants without a warrant. In all likelihood, that’s just the tip of the surveillance-state iceberg. From cameras all over towns and cities, to satellites, to getting information from phones, emails, TV’s, computers, and any other devices you use. It’s all pretty scary for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Pablo. I appreciate your comments. There’s another episode I listened to about a different type of spying using a device called a stingray. I hope to write about that in a future post. Until then, it’s tricky trying to maintain our privacy. Thanks for your thoughts. Cindy


  3. Narayan St. Jude

    This is was a fun read Cindy. I appreciate you raising awareness about this. It is no coincidence I chose two particular books as subjects to present in posts on my blog First Final Words (https://firstfinalword.wordpress.com/) 1984, and Brave New World. I feel like we are living a kind of hybrid of themes and warnings from those books in the U.S. some days.

    Do you follow the EFF https://www.eff.org? They have a lot of outreach on this subject.

    Thanks for including the further reading links.

    (p.s. The design on your blog is tight.)

    RJ (the first) 🙂 #cs5711


    1. Hey RJ. I’ll check out your blog. I took a quick glance earlier this weekend and remembered seeing the book cover. I saw 1984 last week; a darkness I hope we don’t become. Thanks for your comment about my design and the link to EFF. I’m familiar with them but haven’t followed them. Time to add them to my RSS feed! Cindy

      Liked by 1 person

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