L.A. County Sheriff's Department Spied on Entire City with Eye in the Sky but Kept It Secret

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spied on the entire city of Compton in 2012 using a private air surveillance company but never mentioned it to the city because, well, they probably wouldn't have liked it.

“The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public,” L.A. County sheriff’s Sgt. Doug Iketani told the Center for Investigative Reporting, which publicized the endeavor in partnership with KQED. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush.”

Iketani supervised the project that came about after a series of purse snatchings in the city patrolled by the sheriff came to the attention of Ross McNutt, an Air Force veteran, who offered the services of his company, Persistent Surveillance Systems. McNutt claimed that he could equip a single prop plane with photo digitizing gear, which would capture the entire city in a single shot that could be zoomed to analyze any action on the ground.

They ran the system in Compton, a city of 97,000, for nine days before stopping. The resolution was crappy and vehicles couldn't be ID'd, much less people. But it was one small hiccup in the nonstop rush by law enforcement across the country to photograph and store digitized information of anything in sight for use with other surveillance technology, like face recognition and GPS.

When perfected, and it won't be long, a 24-7 digitized recording of all activities in a city can be stored in a computer for tracking down bad guys or spying on innocent people. It is just one spooky surveillance technique among many that have already been deployed around the country. Some cities, like Oakland, are expanding Domain Awareness Centers funded by the federal government that initially sought to keep an eye on ports but have suffered varying degrees of mission creep.

The FBI plans to make 130 million fingerprints—gathered from people who were detained but never arrested or charged with a crime—digital and searchable before the end of the year. DNA samples, gathered in the same dubious way, are beginning to stream in with the blessing of the courts. Millions of mugshots are already in the system.

Compton officials downplayed the plane surveillance when asked about it this week, noting that they already had 20 surveillance cameras in city parks keeping an eye on folks. “Citizens weren’t notified because cameras were already installed in Compton on the ground,” Sheriff's spokeswoman Nicole Nishida told the Los Angeles Times.

She said there was no “Big Brother” aspect to the spying because “the images were black and white” and the authorities “couldn't distinguish a man from woman or SUV from compact car.”

Big Brother is so much more efficient than that.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More

Hollywood-Style Surveillance Technology Inches Closer to Reality (by G.W. Schulz and Amanda Pike, Center for Investigative Reporting)

Eyes Over Compton: How Police Spied on a Whole City (by Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic)

LA Sheriff's Dept. on New Surveillance Program: We Knew the Public Wouldn't Like It, So We Kept It a Secret (by Tim Cushing, TechDirt)

When the LASD Spied on the City of Compton—and Forgot to Tell Anybody (by Celeste Fremon, Witness LA)

Sheriff's Official: No "Big Brother" with Compton Air Surveillance (by Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times)

Oakland Backtracks on Expanding Port Surveillance Center to Entire City (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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