High Over Compton: “Wide Area Surveillance” Surveils Entire Town

The Atlantic picks up on a story from the Center for Investigative Reporting that in 2012, the LA County Sheriff’s Department secretly tested a civilian surveillance aircraft by flying it over a town in their jurisdiction and taking high-resolution footage of everything visibly happening there, over a period of up to six hours (highlights are ours):

If it’s adopted, Americans can be policed like Iraqis and Afghanis under occupation – and at bargain prices:

McNutt, who holds a doctorate in rapid product development, helped build wide-area surveillance to hunt down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. He decided that clusters of high-powered surveillance cameras attached to the belly of small civilian aircraft could be a game-changer in U.S. law enforcement.

“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,” McNutt said. “But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch.”

A sergeant in the L.A. County Sheriff’s office compared the technology to Big Brother, which didn’t stop him from deploying it over a string of necklace snatchings.

The town they chose? Compton. Yes, that Compton, but it’s not the same Compton as yesteryear. Its boosters are now touting it as the hip, countercultural Brooklyn of the LA area. It has an inspirational new Millennial mayor, Aja Brown, who has garnered comparisons to Cory Booker. Its crime rate is down sixty percent, and it’s now majority-Latino. But it still has a median household income of $42,335, and still, even after all its struggles, somehow found itself the first city selected for mass surveillance, over, say, majority-white, tony Santa Clarita (median household income $91,450). Well, blow me down with a post-racial colorblind goddamn feather.

In related news, the NSA, under its MYSTIC and RETRO programs, was revealed last month to have been collecting the contents of the phone communications of an entire country (unnamed, but probably Iraq).

Believe it or not, this is the program's actual logo.
Believe it or not, this is the program’s actual logo.

These two stories are essentially the same. Developments in technology allow law enforcement surveillance to sweep past legal constraints intended for an era where collecting, storing and analyzing so much data was inconceivable. In luckless Compton, the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Florida v. Riley renders “wide area surveillance” presumptively constitutional. In luckless Iraq, the expansive powers of Executive Order 12333 and the FISA Amendments Act impose effectively no constraints on the NSA in intercepting the communications of foreign nations.

May I draw your attention to three salient points?

1. Surveillance is not about pre-empting terrorist attacks. The amount of data being gathered by systems like this is vastly beyond the capacity of any agency to effectively process in a timely manner. Any automated voice translation system will throw up so many false positives that it will be impossible to chase down every potential lead. Even if you assume perfect translation, there can never be the manpower needed to read, and understand the context of, every communication in a whole country. We can see in the case of the Boston Marathon bombings that surveillance enables you to go in after an attack and see what warnings you missed; but that’s cold comfort for the victims, and also cold comfort for taxpayers, who have been sold a Brooklyn-Bridge-sized lie that such systems can actually make them safer ahead of time.

2. Contrary to common myths, Washington doesn’t lightly waste money; behind every boondoggle of a program, there are always people who feel that the program isn’t wasteful, but vital. Let’s look, therefore, at what mass surveillance actually succeeds in doing, rather than at what it claims to do. It’s notable that the fact that mass surveillance hasn’t thwarted any terrorist attacks has caused barely a falter in the step of its defenders. What, then, does mass surveillance do? Mass surveillance concentrates information, and therefore power, in the hands of the deep state – an unelected, vastly male, vastly white, complex of intelligence agencies, military employees and contractors, mostly based around DC. This post-9/11 security racket has helped that area overtake Silicon Valley as the richest part of the country. The profits are enormous, and the flow of government funds for “””thwarting terrorism”””, unlike for anything else, is nearly infinite. The targets it chooses, and the “terrorists” it defines, are the entities that threaten that cozy, insular world, rather than targets that pose an actual threat. That’s why they’re paranoid about peaceful outsider groups like Wikileaks and Anonymous and journalists like Barrett Brown, who threaten their monopoly on information. That’s why they will readily label everybody in an entire country a potential threat to American security, even when Iraq does not, and has not at any time in the last twenty years, posed a national security threat to the United States. That’s why the fusion centers, with their bankster partners, slammed down on Occupy, and why the first target of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is the suspiciously poor and dark potential necklace-snatchers of Compton rather than the affluent and white potential white-collar fraudsters of Santa Clarita. Surveillance technology is only as neutral and unbiased as the people administering it, and people’s biases, often unconsciously, infect what they see. This example is from the AP’s Katrina coverage in 2005:


The “Eye in the Sky” over Compton may “neutrally” capture photons, but the people making the decisions on what constitutes “criminality” in the space surveilled are still more likely to identify the same behavior by poor and minority people as being prosecutable. Surveillance accentuates, and gives a veneer of objectivity, to the already too-powerful biases in the criminal justice system.

3. Last, mass surveillance by such people prevents any meaningful oversight of such people. Politicians come and go across the public stage of Washington, but in Fort Meade, the same agencies grow steadily more powerful as their utter impunity becomes clearer and clearer.

I would love for any of this to be untrue. I would love to see meaningful surveillance reform occur. I would love to see real accountability for US government torture, and an end to the manic and reflexive calls for war with somebody, anybody, so that this privileged caste can avoid even the minimal and inadequate oversight that will come with peace. I work every day to bring these things to pass. But if they do not come, a brighter day is still on its way that I may live to see; and I will explain what that means tomorrow, in Part II of this post.

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