You Are Being Watched

In the 1780s, an English philosopher devised an idea for a prison — the Panopticon. A circular design with the prisoner cells on the outside and a guard post in the center. The prisoners are unable to know if they are being observed by the guard post, but they know that it is possible at any moment. Because of the uncertainty, the prisoners will behave properly, acting as though they were under surveillance, even if it wasn’t the case. In this way, a single guard can effectively control hundreds of prisoners.

Modern policing is on its way to creating this panopticon for the general public, with two major distinctions. First, there is no uncertainty whether someone is watching; someone always is. Second, and most importantly, we aren’t prisoners.

I’m going to talk about several areas of surveillance technology that exist, how they’re currently being used, and also provide some speculation. I worry whenever I talk about this topic that I sound like an unhinged conspiracy theorist. I will provide (reputable) citations for almost everything. The exception is one piece of software that will have very little in the way of documentation, because of a huge amount of secrecy around the company and the program. I feel comfortable bringing it up because I personally witnessed it being used at my former department.

Technology has quickly outpaced the law. Court decisions currently being made are done so without an appreciation for the incredible computing and engineering power that exists at this moment, and the even greater power that will exist in a very short amount of time. If this is not a world we want to live in, we have to petition our elected representatives to protect our interests, as the courts may not.

If you’re comfortable with being on camera and tracked every moment you step out of your front door, then feel free to skip this article.

Aerial Surveillance

In the 1998 thriller Enemy of the State, Will Smith is on the run from scary government agents who use satellites to track him. At the time, the tracking technology did not exist that would have allowed this to really happen. But someone saw it and wondered how to do that in real life.

The first model for this was the cartoonishly-named Gorgon Stare. (I remain aghast that the people who developed this technology took inspiration from not one, but two fictional villains.) Multiple cameras are attached to aerial drones to enable a single drone to capture and track targets over a huge area — referred to as Wide Area Persistent Surveillance (WAPS).

This technology was created to provide surveillance on insurgent targets in the Middle East. After some initial hiccups, the Gorgon Stare evolved into the Autonomous Realtime Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (ARGUS-IS), presumably named for this fellow.

With ARGUS, a single Reaper predator drone can surveil an area of almost 40 square miles. (Cincinnati, OH — where I’m from — is about 80 square miles.)

These systems are not simply slapping a bunch of cameras onto drones (which would be alarming enough). It would take dozens of people to properly monitor and track the huge amounts of information coming in from these video feeds. Instead, complex artificial intelligence programs are running in the background that capture and follow anything that is moving.

Imagine that with the click of a button, an analyst somewhere, without your knowledge and without a warrant, could pull up a map that showed everywhere you had gone today. Or yesterday. Or the last week.

As is all too common, weapons designed for fighting foreign wars make their way back home.

In 2016, Bloomberg Businessweek reported a story of a secret surveillance program being run above the city of Baltimore. Funded by a Texas billionaire, a private company (Persistent Surveillance Systems) had contracted with the police to fly Cessna flights over Baltimore and provide analysis and tracking. This was done without the knowledge of the citizens of the city, or even local government (outside the police department).

(To be fair, the president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, Ross McNutt, believes that transparency is the best policy with these kinds of systems. After all, the panopticon only works when people know they’re being watched.)

The program was scrapped after public outcry, only to re-emerge a few years later. Persistent Surveillance Systems pitched the program to the city again, as homicide numbers increased. To better convince the community that was going to be getting the brunt of the impact, McNutt told skeptical citizens that the surveillance program could also be used to monitor police misconduct.

With high levels of support from the local government, businesses, and community, Persistent Surveillance Systems began flying three planes over Baltimore, 40 hours a week, capturing over 90% of the city in a program the Baltimore police called Aerial Investigation Research (AIR).

Currently, the program in Baltimore is being conducted with manned flights, and is limited by weather and daylight. These are technological limitations where solutions either already exist (in the case of unmanned drones) or are soon to be here. Persistent Surveillance Systems is already focused on using night-vision cameras. 24-hour surveillance is not far from becoming a reality.

Cellphone Surveillance

This type of surveillance tracks your physical body, but you are also leaving digital footprints as you go about your day. We all know that we’re basically carrying little tracking devices with us wherever we go. Cell phones with GPS keep persistent tabs on us. What we don’t all know is what law enforcement has access to.

In addition to your cell phone number, there is another number attached to you called your advertising ID number — or Ad-ID. This number will ping periodically when you use certain apps, like Facebook or Amazon or Waze, to name a few. If you ever wondered why you start getting ads for products you search for on Amazon, this number is the reason. It tracks your history to see what products you might be interested in, so you can get tailored ads. On your phone, it will also pinpoint your location.

Ostensibly, this is a feature that is only useful for companies to try and make more money off of you. But all that data was too much for law enforcement to pass up.

At my former department, we purchased a software called Fog Reveal. I would provide a link to the company website if I could find it. But the last time I had access to the program, no such website existed anyway.

Fog Reveal is a program that buys up cell phone data, and then allows customers to draw an area on a map and retrieve any Ad-ID numbers that pinged in that area over a certain time — this is called “geofencing”. For any of the Ad-ID numbers that come up, a user can select one and see all the location pings for that Ad-ID number, regardless of where they occurred.

These searches of cell phone data are being done by law enforcement without a warrant. To be clear, this is not just tracking your movement through public space — this is data that pings off of your phone wherever you are. In your home, your car, place of business, friend’s house, etc.

Legal Cases

Geofencing searches have recently been found to be unconstitutional, violating the 4th Amendment’s restrictions on searches. In several opinions (here and here), judges determined that even with a warrant, a search that captured data on every single person within a geofenced area was too broad.

In the cases cited above, the government had requested an additional level of information from Google — including the owner names and phone numbers. When I brought up my objections with Fog Reveal, the city’s legal department said that the software was legal to use, as the information collected did not constitute identifiable information — just the Ad-ID number.

This was a very similar argument that was made when the ACLU sued Baltimore about its Aerial Investigation Research program. In that decision, the court determined that because the information being collected by the aerial surveillance program was too low-resolution to include identifiable characteristics, the use of the imagery did not constitute an unreasonable search.

If this were true, it would mean that police departments were spending millions of dollars on programs that wouldn’t allow them to identify anyone. Obviously, this is absurd. In fact, this data can easily be combined with a host of other data sources that police departments have readily at hand to capture the identity of anyone caught up in them.

Analysts, like myself, are trained to use a variety of data sources, paid or open-source, to not only identify people, but also determine their travel patterns. Where they sleep, where they work, where they visit. With the use of aerial surveillance and cell-phone tracking, police departments are capable of tracking any single person, and they can do so without a warrant.

This is not something that might happen in the future — this is something happening right now.

What Next?

The simple fact of the matter is that police departments have not earned our trust to be allowed to use such powerful technology. Policing is biased and unequal, and disproportionately affects minority communities. Giving the police more ammunition will only serve to heighten these disparities.

These types of surveillance programs will also do nothing to address police misconduct. You cannot stop police misconduct by giving more power to the police. That only gives them more power to commit misconduct.

As it stands, the legal issues also seem fairly settled. This level of surveillance is permissible. Barring the Supreme Court weighing in (and I doubt this SCOTUS would rule against law enforcement), there doesn’t seem to be a legal avenue to challenge these programs. (But I am very much Not A Lawyer, so maybe I’m wrong about that.)

So what can you do? Part of the problem is that some of these programs are so secretive that it’s next to impossible to know if they’re being conducted. The only reason I know about Fog Reveal is because I worked directly for the police department, and was asked to have my team oversee it. (I declined.)

But if you do happen to know what’s going on in your city, talk to your city council. They are the elected representatives, and they can act on the behalf of the people. We do have a say in how we are policed, and we can demand change.

This post was previously published on


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Photo credit:  Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

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Davin Hall