Authorities Secretly Spied On Us From The Sky, Big-Brother Style, To Save Us From A Necklace Thief

Compton residents had no idea that the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept. deployed a surveillance aircraft to spy on them in 2012. And deputies kept it largely a secret from them because they were afraid the community—with good reason—would accuse them of acting like Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) reported this month that the deputies tested out high-tech surveillance equipment that captured high-resolution video of everything on the streets of Compton—from the people to the vehicles. The real-time footage was shot from an aircraft that has the capability to shoot within a 25-mile radius for six hours. Deputies watching the videos can zoom in and out of the footage. It's surveillance video but with the scope of Google Earth.

"It's city-wide surveillance on an unprecedented scale," a reporter said on CIR and KQED's "State of Surveillance" news segment on the issue.

"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,” said Ross McNutt, a retired Air Force veteran who created the technology. "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."

Compton residents said they were shocked this kind of secret surveillance happened right under their noses (or right above their heads as the case may be). “I [didn’t know about it.] Wow. It really bothers me a lot,” Compton resident Latonya Lindsey told CBS Los Angeles. “We should know, I mean, we should have the opportunity to know…if we’re gonna be kinda like, spied on. If that’s what’s going on, people should know.”

This technology is an example of military strategies being deployed at home. McNutt also built a similar surveillance camera to track down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of tracking down bombing suspects, this technology was deployed to solve a much pettier crime: necklace-snatching. The camera footage isn't sophisticated enough to capture clear close-ups of facial features that could be used as evidence in court. It didn't actually help them find any suspects, but deputies say the footage provided them with leads on a string of necklace-snatchings.

What's most chilling is that L.A. County sheriff’s Sgt. Doug Iketani, who helmed the experimental project, explained nonchalantly that the department kept their Big Brother project under wraps precisely because they knew it would bother the public. He told the CIR:

"The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public," 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."

In other words, people can't protest if they don't know what's going on. The fact that police could theoretically solve crimes—and incredibly small ones, at that—is worth the invasion of privacy, Iketani said: "But with the wide-area surveillance you would have the ability to solve a lot of the unsolvable crimes with no witnesses, no videotapes surveillance, no fingerprints."

The CIR reported on the dangers of this kind of policing:

Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said she’s concerned the government will eventually collect and store face images like it does now with the tens of millions of fingerprints submitted by people seeking certain jobs. She’s worried such data will be merged with criminal records that are currently kept separate - resulting in innocent people being placed under suspicion.

This isn't the first time Lynch has been worried about surveillance without judicial oversight. In March, she wrote a blog post on the EFF website about how the LAPD and LASD have been collecting information on every license plate in L.A. as part of an "ongoing investigation," whether or not a crime has been committed. They've been taking images using automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) mounted atop of their patrol cars and on telephones poles to take high-tech images of license plates. The ACLU and EFF filed a lawsuit against the LAPD and LASD in May 2013 for not releasing any information on policies with the ALPRs.

You can check out the report on the Compton surveillance here: