As Americans have grown increasingly comfortable with traditional surveillance cameras, a new, far more powerful generation is being deployed that can track every vehicle and person across an area the size of a small city, for several hours at a time, reports the Washington Post. Although these cameras can't read license plates or see faces, they provide such a wealth of data that police, businesses and even private individuals can use them to help identify people and track their movements. The cameras have been flown above major public events such as the Ohio political rally where Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) named Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. They've been flown above Baltimore; Philadelphia; Compton, Ca.; and Dayton in demonstrations for police. They've also been used for traffic impact studies, for security at NASCAR races and at the request of a Mexican politician, who commissioned the flights over Ciudad Juárez.
Its potential is raising novel civil liberties concerns. In Dayton, officials balked last year when police considered paying for 200 hours of flights, in part because of privacy complaints. “There are an infinite number of surveillance technologies that would help solve crimes . . . but there are reasons that we don't do those things, or shouldn't be doing those things,” said Joel Pruce, a University of Dayton postdoctoral fellow in human rights who opposed the plan. “You know where there's a lot less crime? There's a lot less crime in China.” The Supreme Court generally has given wide latitude to police using aerial surveillance as long as the photography captures images visible to the naked eye. Ross McNutt of Dayton-based Persistent Surveillance Systems hopes to win over officials in Dayton and elsewhere by convincing them that cameras mounted on fixed-wing aircraft can provide far more useful intelligence than police helicopters do, for less money.