Gaius Publius: How Police Use Military Technology to Secretly and Persistently Track You

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive  here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny

We could make some grand statement about the nature of surveillance in 21st Century America — there’s certainly a grand and frightening statement to be made — but that would obscure the detail. (Do note, though, when you watch the videos, how much the American need for extreme Public Safety — “Daddy, keep us safe” — is invoked in justifying these intrusions.)

That said, from a recent Rolling Stone report on surveillance in Baltimore, here is just the detail, how Americans are being watched by cops of all stripes.

▪ Large urban areas are constantly photographed from 10,000 feet.Using multiple cameras in a plane flying at 10,000 feet and computer-driven “image stitching” software, police can photograph all open traffic and human interactions in five-mile square urban area for hours — and archive everything for later use.

This creates a storable, searchable, time-lapse wide-area “movie” of all street movement. Watch the video above to see it in action. Note that only at the end of the video are privacy issues even mentioned. Note also that the “events” discussed aren’t just planned events, like parades and demonstration, but also events not announced ahead of time, like murders. “Pre-event forensics” assumes constant “just in case” surveillance.

This kind of surveillance is happening now in at least one American city, Baltimore. Benjamin Powers, writing at Rolling Stone (emphasis mine):

Eyes Over Baltimore: How Police Use Military Technology to Secretly Track You

“They view people as enemy combatants,” says activist, as cops adopt surveillance, tracking, facial recognition programs designed for war zones 

When protesters took to the street after police shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, they were greeted by law enforcement in full body armor, flanked by armored vehicles. In the two and a half years and countless shootings since, militarized police have become an all too familiar sight. In response, citizens have overwhelmingly begun to film these interactions on their smartphones, making the technology the eyes of our nation. But as we watch the police, they also watch us – only they don’t use an iPhone. Often, they use military grade surveillance equipment that gives them a much broader view than simple cell phone cameras ever could.

The city of Baltimore has, in many ways, become ground zero for the military surveillance technology that is slowly making its way from the battlefields into the hands of police departments across the country. From January to October of last year, police monitored Baltimore’s citizens using a Cessna airplane outfitted with military grade surveillance technologies multiple times, without their knowledge, that were developed for overseas war zones. The Baltimore Police Department has used surveillance technology such as large-scale aerial surveillanceadvanced cell phone tracking and facial recognition technology on Baltimore’s citizens, yet these technologies have had little to no oversight from city government, and most have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Examined together, these surveillance technologies demonstrate an extended record of secret surveillance by the Baltimore Police Department. In August of 2016, the Department of Justice reported that the BPD needed greater oversight and transparency.

Yet police using military surveillance technology is increasingly common.

There’s much more about these cameras, and who is financing their use, in the article. But cameras are just the start.

▪ Hardware and software tracks faces and captures cell phone communication. Hardware that mimics cell phone towers and facial recognition software have also been used to “oversee” Baltimore:

While PSS is the most recent example, Baltimore’s citizens have also faced police armed with military technology to track cellphones and identify faces that was implemented and honed overseas. Both of these create very real problems for everyday people.

Since 2010, and potentially prior, Baltimore has been subjected to a technology developed for overseas battlefields called Stingray, otherwise know as a cell site simulator. The technology mimics a cellphone tower, causing nearby phones to connect to it. In the pinging back and forth once connected, a Stingray knows not only what cell phones are in the area, but also where they are, the calls they’ve made, and, importantly, the conversations themselves.

This data capture isn’t just limited to the individual that police might be looking to track, but also all the other phones on the network.

About facial recognition surveillance, consider this, from the four-year-old NY Times report by Charlie Savage linked above:

Facial Scanning Is Making Gains in Surveillance

The federal government is making progress on developing a surveillance system that would pair computers with video cameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with researchers working on the project.

The Department of Homeland Security tested a crowd-scanning project called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System — or BOSS — last fall after two years of government-financed development. Although the system is not ready for use, researchers say they are making significant advances. That alarms privacy advocates, who say that now is the time for the government to establish oversight rules and limits on how it will someday be used. …

The automated matching of close-up photographs has improved greatly in recent years, and companies like Facebook have experimented with it using still pictures.

…[R]esearchers on the project say they made progress, and independent specialists say it is virtually inevitable that someone will make the broader concept work as camera and computer power continue to improve.

I would say we’re at least five years off, but it all depends on what kind of goals they have in mind” for such a system, said Anil Jain, a specialist in computer vision and biometrics engineering at Michigan State University who was not involved in the BOSS project.

“Five years off” from 2013 is 2018, and who knows how good they’ve gotten already? Is it deployed yet. The RS article suggests it’s already deployed in Baltimore.

▪ Location-based social media monitoring and tracking has grown frighteningly sophisticated. This one is even scarier. To get a full sense of this system’s power, watch the short marketing video below:

Amazingly powerful as a monitoring and tracking tool. But you knew this had to be possible, right? It just needed someone wealthy enough and authoritarian enough to get it implemented (looking at you, Deep State).

Note the stated goal, announced in the first sentence of the video: “To uncover actionable social media content.” Again, this is a marketing video, selling its features to potential customers.

As the video shows, any content can be tracked using sophisticated filters. And who defines what “actionable” means? The FBI? Militarized urban cops? Attorney General J. Beauregard Sessions? Donald Trump during one of his night-sweat sessions?

And who defines what “actions” might follow such tracking? Obviously, the user, depending on their goal. Which opens wide the field of possibilities. Anyone with access to this system can use it for any purpose they wish. This includes hired, or rogue, mercenary forces like Blackwater (or whatever they’re calling themselves these days). This includes anyone who can buy it. I imagine the range of who could do what to who with this stuff is endless.

But don’t let your mind wander too far into that field of possibilities; you’ll scare yourself.

Archived live performance; music credits at the link. Original recorded version here.

And you wouldn’t want to do that. The world has already grown scary enough as it is, all on its own.

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  1. oho

    ‘police can photograph all open traffic and human interactions in five-mile square urban area for hours’

    The buck stops at the mayor. but it feels like some wedge identity politics issue always is more important and distracts attention from nuts and bolts issues.

    Like some shiny ball that’s thrown in front of a cat by the powers that be.

  2. Mark Alexander

    The info about Geofeedia gives us yet another reason to leave cell phones in airplane mode as much as possible (and use old phones that can’t be manipulated remotely), and resign from all social media. The downside is that users will have to learn how to employ ancient technology like “paper maps”, “road atlases”, “compasses”, and “books”, to name just a few.

    I used to think that writing ordinary postal mail was more secure than IM/email/texting, but after reading about how the USPS scans the outside of every envelope that passes through its system, I’m not so sure any more.

    What to do about aerial photography? Maybe we Vermonters can dress up in moose and bear costumes.

    1. Anon

      You can download digital maps onto a cellphone and use them just like a paper map (without, of course, using the GPS function). Airplane Mode and Faraday Bags are essential in today’s tracking climate.

  3. Ivy

    Faraday cages, floppy hats, Groucho Marx glasses and airplane mode living, is that what we are to accept?

  4. cm

    Missile defense system deployed by police at Standing Rock

    Confirmed: Avenger ‘surface to air’ vehicles spotted near Oceti Sakowin camp. The Avenger is used to fire 8 stinger rockets, mostly used for shooting down drones. The vehicle is also commonly equipped with a 50 cal machine gun.

  5. Praedor

    Looks like a business opportunity for specialized hoodies (and hats). Hoodies/hats with a dark, semi-opaque drop-down cover for the face. Gauzy enough to let you see out (added benefit…some sun glare reduction!) but enough block to prevent a camera from seeing your face or its features.

    Add-ons: near IR LED lights just inside the rim lining of the hoodie hood. This will blind any night-vision-capable cameras out there (ineffective against day-only cameras that have an IR filter in place).

    Preventing your snail mail from being scanned (beyond the external envelope info): simply wrap your missive in aluminum foil before you place it in the envelope. 100% opaque to USPS letter scanners.

    1. Praedor

      Follow-on…there’s already hoodies out there with the face cover option. Their styles need some expansion into less ridiculous areas (simple designs/patterns, solid colors, etc):

    2. Synoia

      Ah, yes, we need the universal bhurka – the muslim world has often been shead of the christian world.

  6. Eric Patton

    I suppose the mileage of others may and will vary, but employers already track you. I really don’t care if the government gets in on the act, too. I have bigger things to worry about.

    1. Anon

      …and so do car rental companies. I recently used a UHaul truck that was monitored (location, engine activity, speed, etc.). Technology has made surreptitious superfluous.

      1. Praedor

        Easy to prevent. When you rent the vehicle, remove the fuse for GPS under the dash. No more tracking. Applies to rental cars too.

    2. perpetualWAR

      “I have bigger things to worry about…”
      Things said in haste without thinking of overarching issues about privacy.

        1. Praedor


          What you do TODAY may be no big whoop. What you SAY today may be no biggie. But that can easily change tomorrow.

          Your attitude is equivalent to “If you haven’t done anything wrong, what are you worried about?” when it comes to NSA spying on your every communication. First, you have a right to privacy. The government has NO rights, only responsibilities and restrictions. The Constitution’s prime focus is on LIMITING the power/actions of government.

          Second, to borrow from one of the best movies EVAH: “Governments should fear its people, people should not fear their government” (“V for Vendetta”). Your every communication may be meh NOW, under CURRENT rules/laws/system but that can change 180 degrees tomorrow. On a simple basic level, it is NONE of the government’s business (nor the business of ANY government functionary) what you say, who you say it to, who you fuck, who you date, who you flirt with, what personal issues you discuss with family or friends. NONE OF IT’S BUSINESS.

          Third, YOU may have no problem with government cameras and mics being put in your house, your bedroom, on your phones, on your computer, etc, etc, but that can ONLY apply to YOU. You and the FAR too many who think like you do have a very corrosive effect on court rulings because the courts see (too many) people like you and decide that the government CAN spy on citizen’s every move, thought, purchase, action because…if you haven’t done anything wrong, why are you worried? And, “Nobody cares if the government does these things”.

          Wrong. It is enough if even just a handful of citizens oppose this shit for it to be forbidden. You cannot protect liberty (in thought and action) if you give government full access to your life, my life, his life, her life, their lives.


          1. Cglass

            I still think one of the best statements regarding government surveillance was made by a commenter to a WaPo article back in August 2013 discussing the collection of metadata. It’s still relevant, even we’ve moved far beyond mere metadata.

            “It’s only metadata,” cry the Clappers and the Feinsteins. They aren’t really that naive, are they? With a click of the button, the “metadata” will instantly reveal the names and addresses, and the phone numbers and IP addresses, of everyone who belongs to Alcoholics Anonymous; all the evangelicals, Pentecostalists, Jews, Catholics, and Wiccans; and all the members, associates, and sympathizers of Occupy; all the Doomsday Preppers; all the Deadheads, and all the Juggalos. Everyone whom some future oppressive government would oppress is already known to, and has been identified by the keepers of the “metadata.” Anyone who thinks the NSA is waiting until some unspecified future date to make privacy-invasive uses of “metadata” is living in Pollyanna-world.

          2. Anthony G Stegman

            “Airplane mode” will not protect you in the least. Stingrays can still track you. Farraday bags are easy to misuse, and if misused are largely useless. Even a powered down phone can be tracked. Take the battery out (if you can).

  7. human

    I-95 in Connecticut is just finishing up an end to end camera system atop 50′ poles. They are placed close enough so that they will just overlap. The proliferation of local intersection cameras just astounds me.

  8. Andrew Watts

    So, just assume that if anybody brings their cell phone to a protest they are an informant. Whether that is intentional or unwittingly is not the issue.

  9. Mark Ó Dochartaigh

    When the director of the NSA announced the Utah Data Collection Center, where they keep all of the data on the internet plus as much of everything else as they can, he said that the agency would not use the data to search out individuals but rather to analyze actions after someone had been apprehended. How long until an authoritarian starts picking people that they do not like and fabricating evidence against them. And everyone will believe them, because they have all the data on everyone. Just like bush II tRumped up the charges against Iraq.

    1. fajensen

      How long? If we by “an authoritarian” really mean “in a systematic way” or “as a defined policy”, I’d say “how long” is about -15 years or so. Way before that if “an authoritarian” is “any yahoo with motive and means”.

      The digital infrastructure just makes the job easier, faster, more convenient and much harder to fight against – as you say, “The Data does not Lie”.

  10. David Jacobs

    Advocating the use of counter measures is about as useful as gun ownership is in keeping the police/government from overreaching. While it may work in a specific instance, overall, the resources are too lopsided, it becomes a losing battle. Tracking you is only going to become easier. And the more you avoid it, the more you become a person of interest.

    We need to figure out the structural policy changes necessary to prevent abuse. Maintaining privacy in the long run is a lost cause. And it distracts from the figuring out the real changes we need.

    As a side note, they are already working on body/gait recognition so don’t count on fooling the facial recognition for long.

  11. Thomas

    Just as an aside, and maybe you know it already:
    Apple iPhoto/Fotos keeps a detail enlargement of any face you might have in your foto collection!
    Open the library pakage w/control click, then go to resources\media, there you’ll find a “face” folder.
    One asks oneself what they’re using that for.

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