In 2012, a private company working with the LA County Sheriff's Department flew a civilian plane rigged with multiple high-powered video cameras over the city of Compton, recording "video of everything that happened inside that 10-square-mile municipality," all without telling residents, according to The Atlantic. Expanding on a previous piece by the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Atlantic says that the project was a test-run of sorts by the company, Persistent Surveillance Systems (seriously, that's the name), eager to show off its tech to the country's largest sheriff's department. (Neither article says how long the plane was in the air or exactly how many times it flew and recorded, but the head of the company himself brags that "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.")
Ohio-based PSS sells surveillance equipment (known as wide area surveillance) that uses cameras mounted on the underside of planes to record video, allowing police to pause, rewind, and zoom in on footage that's been recorded in real-time, like a much creepier DVR. The Sheriffs were "persuaded" by Ross McNutt (the Air Force veteran who owns PSS) to let him fly a plane outfitted with cameras over Compton in response to a chain of horrible crimes terrorizing the city's residents: a string of necklace-jackings. The plan was to have McNutt's aircraft hover over areas where reported thefts had taken place, and to look for anything that might help investigators.
"Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter. But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch," McNutt told CIR. While the tech sounds futuristic (in a dystopian way), it is thankfully still limited: the cameras are not powerful enough yet to recognize faces. (Nowhere near as fancy/invasive as the license-plate recognition software that the LAPD uses.) McNutt himself predicts that technology will advance within the next few years, so don't even sweat it.
At no point was any of this revealed to the residents of Compton because the cops knew they wouldn't much care for having their entire city recorded. "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," says LA County Sheriff Sgt. Doug Iketani, the project's supervisor. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?
· Eyes Over Compton: How Police Spied on a Whole City [The Atlantic]
· Hollywood-style surveillance technology inches closer to reality [CIR]