Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Homeland Security Wants to Spy on 4 Square Miles at Once
It’s not just for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars anymore. The Department of Homeland Security is interested in a camera package that can peek in on almost four square miles of (constitutionally protected) American territory for long, long stretches of time.
Homeland Security doesn’t have a particular system in mind. Right now, it’s just soliciting “industry feedback” on what a formal call for such a “Wide Area Surveillance System” might look like. But it’s the latest indication of how powerful military surveillance technology, developed to find foreign insurgents and terrorists, is migrating to the home front.
The Department of Homeland Security says it’s interested in a system that can see between five to 10 square kilometers — that’s between two and four square miles, roughly the size of Brooklyn, New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood — in its “persistent mode.” By “persistent,” it means the cameras should stare at the area in question for an unspecified number of hours to collect what the military likes to call “pattern of life” data — that is, what “normal” activity looks like for a given area. Persistence typically depends on how long the vehicle carrying the camera suite can stay aloft; DHS wants something that can fit into a manned P-3 Orion spy plane or a Predator drone — of which it has a couple. When not in “persistent mode,” the cameras ought to be able to see much, much further: “long linear areas, tens to hundreds of kilometers in extent, such as open, remote borders.”
If it’s starting to sound reminiscent of the spy tools the military has used in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should. Homeland Security wants the video collected by the system to beam down in “near real time” — 12 seconds or quicker — to a “control room (T) or to a control room and beyond line of sight (BLOS) ruggedized mobile receiver on the ground,” just as military spy gear does. The camera should shift to infrared mode for nighttime snooping, and contain “automated, real time, motion detection capability that cues a spotter imager for target identification.” Tests for the system will take place in Nogales, Arizona.
The range of this system isn’t as vast as the newest, latest cameras that the military either has or is developing. The Army’s super-powerful ARGUS camera, heading to Afghanistan, can look out at 36 square miles at a time; the Air Force’s Gorgon Stare looks out on an entire city at once. On deck are the military’s fleet of spy blimps, which will will generate 274 terabytes of information every hour. Compared to that, the Department of Homeland Security is positively myopic.
But. Those systems are used against insurgents, who are not protected by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions on unreasonable searches. Even if the wide-area surveillance DHS is after is just used at borders or airports, those are still places where Americans go about their business, under the presumption that they’re not living in a government panopticon.
It’s also ironic: the Department of Homeland Security actually isn’t so hot on its own drone fleet. When Danger Room asked an official at the department’s science directorate about using spy drones to spot bombs inside the U.S., she replied, “A case has to be made that they’re economically feasible, not intrusive and acceptable to the public.”
Still, what’s military technology one day is law-enforcement tech the next. As I reported for Playboy last month, more and more cop shops are buying spy drones, and increasingly, the Federal Aviation Administration is approving their use for domestic flights.
That also means that federal and local police can expect to replicate some of the military’s more frustrating aspects of persistent spying — namely, the constant, massive backlog of real-time video they’ll need to analyze. It’s gotten so bad that the Pentagon’s mad scientist shop, Darpa, is trying to automate cameras so human analysts aren’t constantly drinking from a fire hose of spy data.
Still, privacy advocates might soon have a whole new tech-driven battle with the Department of Homeland Security on their hands. It’s hardly clear from the pre-solicitation that the department only expects to operate the cameras after getting a court order — or if it thinks it needs one in the first place. And even if the department isn’t necessarily after the uber-powerful ARGUS or Gorgon Stare cameras, that might only be a matter of time. The wars will end; the spy tech won’t. And it might be keeping tabs on your neighborhood next.