The All-Seeing Eye Of Persistent Surveillance

“Surveillance technologies now available—including the monitoring of virtually all digital information—have advanced to the point where much of the essential apparatus of a police state is already in place.” —Al Gore, “The Future: Six Drivers of Change

In A Nutshell

In 2004, Ross McNutt came up with a foolproof way to fight terrorism. Using special cameras attached to planes, McNutt was able to track down insurgents who planted IEDs. But when he brought the technology back to the US, he faced some pretty serious opposition.

The Whole Bushel

Let’s face it. We’re living in a sci-fi movie. Every day, somebody cooks up a new invention that makes our world feel a little more futuristic. While most of these advancements are for the good of mankind, every so often somebody comes along with an idea that causes a bit of controversy. Take Ross McNutt for example. He’s an ex-Air Force guy with an engineering background, and in the early 2000s, he developed a new way to fight crime across the globe. But while some people describe his idea as a game-changer, others prefer words like “Orwellian.”

In 2004, the US military was taking some pretty heavy damage in Iraq. IEDs were blowing up left and right. That’s when Ross McNutt showed up with his wild idea. While teaching at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson, McNutt and several students developed a foolproof system to track down bad guys. They called it “Project Angel Fire.”

So here’s how Project Angel Fire works. McNutt attached an array of high-resolution cameras onto the bottom of an airplane. That plane would then fly over the city of Fallujah, taking one picture every second. These cameras captured images of a 65-square-kilometer (25 mi2) area, and then the photos were sent back to a control center.

That’s where an operator watched the entire city, one photo at a time. And if there was an explosion, she’d spot the explosion and start trawling back through the images, looking for the culprit who planted the bomb. Now, she couldn’t make out any features. In these photos, humans look like pixels, and vehicles are described looking like “tic-tacs.” However, operators could successfully identify the suspect’s car, and then fast-forward through the images, watching as the car drove to its hiding spot. That’s when the operator contacted the military and bam—no more bad guy.

Now, this seems like a pretty good way to keep terrorists at bay, but what happened when Project Angel Fire came home? Pleased with his success, McNutt opened his own business called Persistent Surveillance. Based in Dayton, Ohio, McNutt’s organization is offering a solution to America’s crime problem. McNutt wants to use his camera-planes to patrol major American cities . . . and as it turns out, he already has. Persistent Surveillance has performed government-approved trial runs over towns like Dayton, Compton, Philadelphia, Camden, and Boston. And at the very least, they’ve offered to take photos of cities like Moscow, London, and Rome.

Naturally, not everyone is thrilled with this idea. Groups like the ACLU worry Persistent Surveillance will violate people’s personal privacy. However, the results are hard to deny. According to RadioLab, McNutt’s plane was able to bring down a major crime boss (responsible for at least 1,500 murders).

Of course, when the people of Dayton, Ohio, found out what was flying over their heads, that didn’t pan out so well. While the city government was enthused with McNutt’s invention, many citizens strongly opposed the idea. There were enough protests that the city of Dayton eventually passed on Persistent Surveillance. However, it’s probably naive to assume that McNutt’s idea will just fade away. As the world is plagued by more and more terrorist attacks, it’s very likely his planes will take to the sky very soon—possibly over a city near you.

Show Me The Proof

RadioLab: Eye in Sky
CBS News: Company uses aerial footage technology to fight crime
PBS: New surveillance techniques raise privacy concerns

  • Ultra Man

    Can we be sure that they aren’t already there. (puts on aluminum foil hat and quickly leaves the room)

    • Hillyard

      That cheap aluminum foil won’t help, you need the real stuff – tin foil.