WAPS – eyes over your city

UAV surveillance drone over city

Gorgon Stare

Is the scary name of video capture technology developed by US military. More details about it can be found at Wikipedia. More generic names are: WAPS (Wide Area Persistent Surveillance) or WAMI (Wide-area motion imagery).
Those systems are capable of capturing wide area with array of cameras with really high resolution, as imaging technology and computational photography develops. Usually this was used on foreign soil to identify military targets. But not only.

FBI had flown at least 10 surveillance flights over Baltimore from April 29 through May 3, 2015, when the city was filled with people protesting Freddie Gray’s death. Thereafter, in January 2016 persistent wide city surveillance started, operated by private company Persistent Surveillance Systems. Based in Dayton, Ohio, they provided the service to the police, and the funding came from a private donor Laura and John Arnold.

“We settled in on Baltimore because it was ready, it was willing, and it was just post-Freddie Gray,” founder of PSS, Ross McNutt


There was no public disclosure of the program. Top city officials, elected leaders and prosecutors were kept in the dark. PSS violated their own data retention policy and the whole program was exposed in August 2016. Previously, company did short trial for L.A. County in 2012, according to LA Times.

A few years later, it seems like it’s all good now. Baltimore officials approved the same deal on 1st of April 2019. On the 9th ACLU filed lawsuit:

The pilot program was set to begin for a trial period of 180 days, but federal judge Richard Bennett ordered the BPD to wait for the court review (and cleared it for deployment on 27th of April) The $3.69 million trial includes three planes flying for at least 40 hours per week.

It seems baffling, what police commissioner Micheal Harrison told AP:

“I have no expectation of what it would do or what it will not do because it has not been done in the United States before,”

Is your city next?

It seems logical, the law enforcement across USA will seek to use WASP, especially in times of civil unrest (maybe they are in use already, given the history). If you don’t feel creeped out enough, think about it in a different way:

“It is equivalent to having a police officer follow us, each of us, outside all the time in case we might commit a crime,”

David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

Aerial surveillance is becoming cheap, more powerful, easier to automate. It can identify and track you; analyse the data at scale using machine learning. Several states have regulations to limit drone surveillance. But even in privacy conscious European Union, use of drones increases.
WAPS is snooping on city scale. The implications of this are profound, and frightening. It is another tool without proper regulation and far reaching consequences, invading our privacy, introducing chilling effect and probably perpetuating racial bias.

Update : As suspected – surveillance planes flew over several US cities, more at Motherboard


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