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AeroCop: Police Put An Eye In The Sky


It's almost like the police have a time machine, so says reporter Craig Timberg of a new surveillance system he describes in The Washington Post. It is an array of 12 cameras that can be mounted on the belly of a small plane. Over the course of several hours, they can intermittently photograph an area the size of a small U.S. city. When police get word of a crime, they simply consult the cameras' footage starting at the scene of the crime and following the perpetrator's car - either forward to his current whereabouts or backward to where he started his day, often at home.

For more on how it works and why some critics are sounding alarms, we're joined by Craig Timberg. Welcome to the program.

CRAIG TIMBERG: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So I want to be clear here, this is not video surveillance, right? This is basically an array that takes photographs over an extended period of time.

TIMBERG: That's right. It takes one picture every second for six hours and in some cases for the longer flights, nine hours.

CORNISH: And just how good a resolution are we talking about? I know in the spy movies it seems like you can zoom in and see someone's face, you know, like, from outer space.

TIMBERG: Right. You couldn't tell that they're reading a copy of The New Yorker or anything. But an individual appears as a single pixel, so like, basically, almost like a speck of dust. A vehicle is a little easier to see. The crucial thing about this technology is they can watch your movements over time. So even if you're a speck of dust, if they watch you as a speck of dust move between your home and your workplace, in fact, they know who you are.

CORNISH: Now, talk about where these cameras have already been used and where have they actually helped solve crimes.

TIMBERG: They've been used most heavily at this point in Mexican border cities such as Juarez, where they've helped solve quite a few murders. But they've also been flown on a demonstration basis over Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dayton, Compton. They've been flow over NASCAR races and they were even flown over Sarah Palin's announcement as vice presidential nominee in 2008 in Dayton, Ohio.

CORNISH: Now, talk about where they have been helpful in terms of investigations.

TIMBERG: Because they've been used much more widely over the border in Mexico, the largest number of successes, if you will, are over there. But in flying over Dayton, they have, for example, been able to help track down who a robber is as they get reports of shots fired, for example, at a Subway sandwich shop. They'll look and see who is leaving the Subway sandwich shop at that moment and where they go next. And with that, they can help solve crimes.

In one case in Dayton, they had a report of a burglary, and they were able to report that to police, you know, go look for a white truck leaving such and such an address at this time. And they were able to catch up with the truck before it got home and the stolen goods were right in the back.

CORNISH: So in your report, you say that the inventor essentially crafted a kind of privacy policy on his own, right? He worked with the ACLU to come up with some restrictions. Describe what those safeguards are.

TIMBERG: The privacy policy the company has adopted limits who can look at these images and under what circumstances. So police can't just sort of troll through the - across the ground and watch everybody and every vehicle's kind of looking for things to go wrong. What they do is if there's a report of a crime or shots fired, they can turn on this imagery and see what's happening both in the future and what happened in the past as people come together for a crime and then scatter after it's committed.

CORNISH: Now, the Supreme Court has been wrestling with the constitutionality of surveillance technology like this. Do we have any sense about whether this system crosses any legal lines?

TIMBERG: I don't think there's any reason to think that it crosses any legal lines as they exist now. The Supreme Court has basically said, you know, if you're flying over something and you're looking at something that's visible to the naked eye, the police have a right to take pictures of it. Now, the civil liberties groups have been arguing fairly strenuously that this kind of technology is really a game changer, that if you can loiter over a place for hours, that it's really a different kind of technology that the courts need to rethink. And there's a push toward that end. I think the courts will have to revisit this at some point.

CORNISH: Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

TIMBERG: It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.