A US company is watching everyone. Source: Supplied
A SMALL private firm in the US has developed a surveillance system of Orwellian proportions that could very well be the future of big brother.
Thirty kilometres above a chosen city, a plane hangs out of sight of the thousands of people scurrying below — continuously circling the metropolis underneath. Every second, the plane takes a photo of the entire city and all the happenings within a 64sq km radius. The images are beamed down to a control centre where they create what is akin to a real-time Google map of everything taking place.
When a crime occurs, teams of analysts simply scroll back in time to the scene of the incident and identify those involved. From that point, they can follow the target by clicking forward through the images to the present moment and pinpoint their location.
Ostensibly, surveillance is about preventing and prosecuting crimes — and while it’s only been used in a handful of cities, Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) are designed to do just that.
The times it has been used on US soil, the tool has allowed authorities to solve crimes in a matter of minutes.
Images taken by PSS of cars identified in a murder. Source: Supplied
According to PPS founder Ross McNutt, the concept was conceived over a few beers at the pub, with the initial plans drawn up on the back of a napkin.
“We developed the system quickly to get an initial capability (within) about 18 months. We have since spent the last eight years perfecting it, lowering the cost, and increasing the effectiveness,” he told news.com.au.
It was thought up in an attempt to help the war effort in Iraq, which wasn’t looking good for the US in 2004.
“The IEDs (improvised explosive device) were killing many of our troops and our commander asked that we see what we could do to help,” he said.
Ross McNutt was teaching at the Airforce Institute of Technology at the time and the desire to aid US troops against the guerilla tactics used by those loyal to Saddam Hussein was felt strongly among faculty and students.
“We developed an idea that would allow us to track bombers back to the place they came from so we could then address the source of the bombs,” he said.
The idea proved immensely useful in capturing those planting IEDs and the air force has since spent more than $US1 billion ($A1.3 billion) to improve and enhance the system.
In fact, the results proved so compelling that it wasn’t long before the US military looked closer to home with thoughts of putting an eye in the sky over some of its own cities.
A still image captured from the plane. Source: Supplied
More sophisticated than it looks. Source: Supplied
With the success of the technology in Iraq, the US government has since used Persistent Surveillance Systems to address high crime rates in cities such as Dayton, Ohio.
For Mr McNutt, it’s simply an economic argument.
According to the National Institute of Justice, Dayton Ohio has 27,000 reported crimes per year, 70 to 80 per day and nearly 10,000 serious crimes, such as rape, murder and assault, which amount to a cost of $US3400 per person each year.
“PSS believes we will contribute to reducing the crime in Dayton by 20 per cent to 30 per cent,” Mr McNutt said. He said this would amount to a yearly saving of $US96 million to $US144 million.
After a five-day trial in June of 2012, the results proved exciting to law enforcement and the police chief recommended a permanent expansion of the services.
However the city decided to hold a public forum to debate the idea and only about 75 people turned up. Due to the high rates of crime, many were supportive of having the surveillance plane overhead. But others, a slightly smaller but very vocal group, were opposed and ultimately dissuaded the city from adopting the service. At least for the time being.
The company says it has about $US150 million in proposals and is waiting to hear if its services will be enlisted. It has negotiated with the cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, Moscow and London.
The company has also carried out a contract for a classified client to combat cartel violence in Mexico.
Analysts are observed to ensure they are only tracking criminals. Source: Supplied
As with all forms of surveillance, PSS ignites a debate about the trade off between civil freedoms and the lengths we should be willing to go to prevent crime. But Mr McNutt said they had made assurances to allay such concerns.
“We have developed a whole host of privacy policies and procedures that protect people privacies. In addition we have designed the system to be limited to one pixel per person, which only allows us to barely see a person and track them to a car. We only support reported crime investigation and ongoing criminal investigations,” he said.
But the fears will always remain.
In the wake of the National Security Agency leaks, US President Barack Obama made an address in which he reaffirmed the importance for a balance between surveillance and privacy.
“The power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do,” Mr Obama said in the 2014 address. “That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do,” he said.
And with companies like Persistent Surveillance Systems, those questions of what we shoulddo are becoming increasingly pertinent.