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21st Century Surveillance

Revolutionary progress in the world of technology has enabled numerous changes in the techniques police officers use to identify, track, and make cases against suspects.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Photo: Mark W. ClarkPhoto: Mark W. Clark

Revolutionary progress in the world of technology has enabled numerous changes in the techniques police officers use to identify, track, and make cases against suspects.

Throughout the 20th century, most of the technological advances in law enforcement revolved around creating and improving methods of communication: radio communications, telephone communications, and emergency communications. The proliferation of computers in the latter part of the century ushered in the digital age of communications, which not only increased the speed with which officers communicate with one another, but now allows for large amounts of data to be transmitted to and from officers in the field. This breakthrough has led to great advances in other technologies that rely on vast amounts of data—such as real-time imaging, biometrics, database searches, and global positioning systems—technologies that lend themselves to a variety of surveillance applications.

Sound and Vision

One of the earliest permanent surveillance installations used by law enforcement was the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system. First deployed in 1995 in Redwood City, Calif., this system uses multiple audio sensors installed on rooftops and telephone poles throughout a city or region to pinpoint the location of a gunshot. Within seconds, a computer analysis system differentiates gunshots from car backfires, a global positioning system triangulates the origin of the gunshot based upon its distance from the sensors, and an automated communications system notifies dispatch. Uniformed officers can be at the site of the shooting within minutes. When ShotSpotter systems are combined with visual surveillance systems, such as traffic monitoring cameras or license plate readers, subsequent investigations often result in positive identification and prosecution of the shooting suspect.

The use of video surveillance technologies to aid law enforcement in identifying suspects has gained increasing popularity among police departments across the country. So much so that police video systems have become commonplace in most major American cities.

New York City's counter-terrorism effort conjoins closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) surveillance with license plate readers. The NYPD's Domain Awareness System (DAS) connects thousands of security cameras in the city, collecting and archiving up to 30 days of digital footage at a time. Investigators then track crimes committed within view of the cameras, following movements of suspects both before and after the commissions of their deeds. The system can do the same for vehicles, which can also be tracked by law enforcement's smart license plate readers.

An added advantage to using a dispersed network of video cameras is that businesses seeking to bolster protection of their employees and products are often willing to support the costs for quality surveillance equipment. The DAS system incorporates cameras owned by both NYPD and private entities.

NYPD hardly has a monopoly when it comes to exploiting evolving surveillance technology to augment their presence in the field.

Earlier this year, the Pittsburg (Calif.) Police Department implemented a smartphone application that allows its police officers to view real-time images transmitted from 86 cameras situated at various locations throughout the city. Using Apple or Android smartphones, officers can monitor activities that take place at intersections, gas stations, and parks throughout the city.

"Our officers are on the street over 90 percent of the time. Their office is their patrol car. So being able to give them this app as a resource to use on their own device is huge," Lt. Ron Raman reported to the Contra Costa Times. "Our city is utilizing technology that is available to help our officers remain safe, our community remain safe, and to arrest criminals."

The ability to monitor illicit activities means that cops can have greater probable cause in conducting their investigations and narrow the suspect pool. This capability also affords an added dimension to officer safety: Officers have a better idea of the type of situation that may be awaiting their arrival and coordinate appropriately.


Critics decry law enforcement's use of such video and audio surveillance technology as peremptory assaults on liberties and nothing less than the manifestation of an Orwellian future. As not all cops are necessarily beholden to all things "Patriot" in the post-9/11 world, the Big Brother rhetoric even has some sympathizers within the profession. However, few officers go out of their way to fight against the use of such technology.

Some critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have formed collectives committed to stopping or slowing law enforcement's deployment of surveillance tools, seeking to clip the wings of the unmanned aerial surveillance industry and severely limit the use of biometric data in criminal investigations. Some claim that the law has not caught up with the technology, while others cite potential Fourth Amendment rights violations.

If our laws are still behind the curve, it isn't due to a dearth of litigation seeking to narrowly define the legal usage of such technology. But as revealed with the U.S. Supreme Court refusal to consider a Michigan blogger's challenge of the use of full-body scanners and thorough pat-downs at airport checkpoints, sometimes legal sanctions are more implied than explicit, the parameters still up to case-by-case consideration and debate.

Catching Thieves

In the meantime, law enforcement continues to find new and innovative means to deploy state-of-the-art tracking and surveillance technology.

Jeffrey Macy, 46, was captured within minutes of his robbery of a Rite Aid in Bangor, Maine, thanks to a global positioning system (GPS) device that had been insinuated into his take by a pharmacist. Police used the device to track Macy in his 1995 Pontiac Bonneville, and he was taken into custody after crashing his vehicle while attempting to flee pursuing officers. Booked for five felony charges in connection with the Rite Aid robbery, Macy was believed to have been responsible for other area bank robberies, as well.

Macy's robbery was just the latest in a growing number of drug-related robberies affecting the Rite Aid. The company had been hit more than 24 times in 2011 compared to only two three years earlier. As a result, according to Rite Aid spokesperson Ashley Flower, the company has invested "millions and millions of dollars in technology and safety measures" at its stores in Maine and elsewhere.

Police agencies are also using new surveillance technologies to foil crimes. Jon Naylor with the Redondo Beach (Calif.) Police Department has found technology a boon on multiple fronts, its usage limited only by the imaginations of investigators rather than any statutory constraints.

Tasked by his chief to find a way to curtail the number of beachfront bike thefts, Naylor and the seven officers on his task force could have committed themselves to long hours of bike rack stakeouts. Instead, they tried something different. Modifying a bike seat with a GPS tracking device combined with a low-frequency radio programmed to activate the team's cellular phones once the bike was moved, they locked the bike in a city bike rack and waited. Naylor explained the technology tandem.

"The GPS tracker is a great device and will put you in the immediate area of the suspects. But if you want to pinpoint them better in case they go to an apartment or hotel room, that's where the radio frequency comes in."

Four hours later, the bike was on the move and the team was notified. They monitored the bike's progress to a hotel where the suspects were staying. By day's end, the team had recovered not only the bait bike but also several others that had been taken from their jurisdiction and nearby cities.

"These were pretty steady players on the property theft front, too," Naylor observes.

Naylor notes that the technology helps on multiple fronts, expediting suspect identification and tracking, minimizing officer-safety risks, and often mitigating the need to develop search warrants. Its usage has allowed the team to track the suspects to their homes, apartments, and fence shops, hitting them literally and figuratively where they live.

Without a Warrant

Predictably, there is a Spy vs. Spy element to all these proceedings with the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Act Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other cop watch organizations keeping ever vigilant eyes on law enforcement surveillance operations.

New York Civil Liberties Union Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn warns that massive surveillance systems, such as New York's Domain Awareness System, must incorporate strict privacy protections and be subject to independent oversight.

"We fully support the police using technology to combat crime and terrorism, but law-abiding New Yorkers should not end up in a police database every time they walk their dogs, go to the doctor, or drive around Manhattan," Dunn said in a statement.

Critics such as the ACLU may decry the Big Brother aspects of police surveillance. But the truth is that the government, including the police, are not the only entities watching the public. Private citizens are using the same technologies to spy on each other. Regular citizens can now track one another using a smartphone application that collects data from cellular towers to determine the approximate location of a cellular user.

Still, police use of modern technology may well come down to the profession's getting as creative with their legal justifications as they are in their deployment of it.

Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that the legality of utilizing this new technology is left to interpretation and needs to be addressed. "Police often access electronic information without a warrant because our privacy laws haven't kept up with technology," she said.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its first decision regarding the constitutionality of law enforcement's use of GPS tracking systems. In U.S. v. Jones, the Court held that attaching a GPS tracking device to an automobile and monitoring the whereabouts of the car over an extended period of time constitutes a search. If conducted without a warrant, this activity violates the Fourth Amendment. Eight months later, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a conviction in a similar case because the GPS tracking was conducted prior to the Supreme Court decision in Jones. Consequently, many convictions that rely on surveillance technologies may stand while individual court cases flow through the appeals process.

Also this year, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that cell phone tracking of suspected criminals is not protected under the Fourth Amendment. The ACLU has filed an appeal to this decision, but it may be a number of months before this matter is laid to rest. In the meantime, as with the GPS tracking example, law enforcement can continue to conduct this type of tracking in good faith. 

Aerial Assets

Literally on the horizon for domestic law enforcement is the use of unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles (UAVs). Used for years by the military and the U.S. Border Patrol, UAVs have now been approved by the FAA for testing by a limited number of domestic police departments.

UAVs are controlled by officers on the ground using handheld joysticks and are capable of flying vertically up to 400 feet. Law enforcement applications for UAVs include searching for missing persons over rough terrain, looking for survivors at airplane and train crash sites, coordinating tactical maneuvers, and gathering information at crime scenes.

Testing of UAVs in law enforcement operations appears promising. However, there are concerns about using these devices in confined building spaces or near crowds where, despite built-in safeguards against such potentialities, a UAV crash would be hazardous to citizens. Such concerns were pivotal toward the scrapping of plans by the New Orleans Police Department to have UAVs deployed overhead at the upcoming Super Bowl XLVII in February 2013.

Watchdog groups seem to be less concerned about the physical dangers of UAVs deployed by law enforcement than they are about the potential invasion of privacy for citizens. They cite the implications of a UAV's ability to pick out a specific individual in a crowded public gathering. And because UAVs do not involve physically attaching a tracking device to private property, they are not subject to the Supreme Court's decision in U.S. v. Jones.

While the admissibility of evidence collected by UAVs is tested in the courts, for now it seems the sky is the limit for potential uses of new technologies by law enforcement.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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