Surveillance Regulation Plays Catch-up to Technology

While there are valid uses of surveillance technology, some say it has advanced much faster than regulation of it.

by / February 10, 2014
This aerial surveillance download of Philadelphia shows just how high resolution flyover surveillance is (see full resolution image). Persistent Surveillance

Law enforcement agencies have ramped up new surveillance technology that begins to approach the sophistication of that pictured in TV shows.

Take Great Britain, where there are almost 6 million security cameras covering the country -- that's one camera for every 11 people, according to the London Telegraph. Hook those up to facial recognition systems, and it is possible to track a majority of the population.

The latest deployment is a system of 12 cameras packed by a light aircraft, circling a city or other area as large as five square miles (They’ve been flown above Baltimore; Philadelphia; Compton, Calif.; and Dayton in demonstrations for police, according to the Washington Post). It records everything for as long as nine hours with incredible detail. If a crime has been committed, the imagery is rolled back to the exact time and place to watch the crime scene, and follow anyone fleeing the scene back to their residence or other location where they can be apprehended.

“It’s almost like the police have a time machine,” said Craig Timburg in a Washington Post video.

There are, of course, valid reasons for use of surveillance technology. Video helped apprehend bombing suspects in London, and after the Boston marathon bombing, individual cell phone photos combined with infrared sensing helped narrow the search and find one suspect hiding in a boat. And TV news coverage often airs security camera footage of some convenience store robbery, or of a suspect being sought by the police. But while the technology is valuable, some say it has advanced much faster than regulation of it.

And recently, U.S. Sen. Al Franken raised concern about  technology that could scan strangers’ faces and pull up information about them, providing the opportunity for stalking or other invasions of privacy.

In response to the potential for misuse, at least 14 states are moving to regulate surveillance. One state would limit how long license plate images could be retained, another would restrict use of cell phone location data.

And in the wake of revelations about NSA spying, a bill by Missouri State Sen. Rob Schaaf "provides that a person's electronic communication and data are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures performed by the government. The amendment specifies that prior to issuance, a warrant must describe the data or communication to be accessed and be supported by probable cause."