Legal Technology

Eye-in-the-sky surveillance a new tool for US cities; is spying via camera while flying too prying?

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Alerted to a burglary in progress, police in Dayton, Ohio, turned to new technology—a plane flying miles overhead with a camera mounted to its wing. It spotted a white truck.

By the time the driver got home, with the swag still in the vehicle, police were waiting for him, the Washington Post (sub. req.) reports.

Such surveillance, although cameras can’t read license plates or identify faces, is a growing trend, raising privacy concerns, the article says.

“There are an infinite number of surveillance technologies that would help solve crimes … but there are reasons that we don’t do those things, or shouldn’t be doing those things,” Joel Pruce told the newspaper. An opponent of the city’s aerial surveillance program, he is a post-doctoral fellow in human rights at the University of Dayton.

“You know where there’s a lot less crime? There’s a lot less crime in China,” Pruce says.

However, the public overwhelmingly supports the use of cameras to cut crime, and deploying them overhead potentially would improve the quality of life in crime-ridden neighborhoods despite a lack of funds to increase local police forces, proponents say.

Ross McNutt, a retired Air Force officer, founded Persistent Surveillance Systems, the company that did the aerial photography in Dayton, He consulted the American Civil Liberties Union before developing a privacy policy for his company (it calls for police to only look at footage after a crime has been reported, not before, for instance) and says he will use future improvements in technological capabilities to expand the range of aerial photography rather than enhance the images that are being photographed, the Post reports.

The mayor of Dayton is encouraging owners of large buildings in the city to mount special surveillance cameras on them.

The aerial photography that has been taking place in Dayton was done by manned planes. However, the general public seems more worried about the possibility of privacy violations by unnmanned drones, and lawmakers in some states are starting to take a look at the issue.

Among those at the forefront is Minnesota, where state legislators are considering standards in 2014 for the use of law enforcement drones, the Associated Press reports.

Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, is part of a bipartisan group promoting such legislation in the House. Johnson, a retired sheriff’s deputy, told the AP on Friday that he wants law enforcement to be able to access this potentially valuable investigative tool, but with appropriate safeguards.

“This is an attempt to balance the needs of law enforcement and the civil rights of Minnesotans and their privacy,” he said. “We want to make sure we use it properly.”

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