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    Washington Post: New surveillance technology can track everyone in an area for several hours at a time

    The Washington Post reports on a new type of surveillance technology that can track people across a widespread area:

    As Americans have grown increasingly comfortable with traditional surveillance cameras, a new, far more powerful generation is being quietly deployed that can track every vehicle and person across an area the size of a small city, for several hours at a time. Although these cameras can’t read license plates or see faces, they provide such a wealth of data that police, businesses and even private individuals can use them to help identify people and track their movements.

    Already, the cameras have been flown above major public events such as the Ohio political rally where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) named Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, [said Ross McNutt, the president of Persistent Surveillance Systems]. They’ve been flown above Baltimore; Philadelphia; Compton, Calif.; and Dayton in demonstrations for police. They’ve also been used for traffic impact studies, for security at NASCAR races and at the request of a Mexican politician, who commissioned the flights over Ciudad Juárez.

    Defense contractors are developing similar technology for the military, but its potential for civilian use is raising novel civil liberties concerns. In Dayton, where Persistent Surveillance Systems is based, city officials balked last year when police considered paying for 200 hours of flights, in part because of privacy complaints. […]

    The Supreme Court generally has given wide latitude to police using aerial surveillance as long as the photography captures images visible to the naked eye. […]

    “We watch 25 square miles, so you see lots of crimes,” [McNutt] said. “And by the way, after people commit crimes, they drive like idiots.” […]

    Courts have put stricter limits on technology that can see things not visible to the naked eye, ruling that they can amount to unconstitutional searches when conducted without a warrant. But the lines remain fuzzy as courts struggle to apply old precedents — from a single overflight carrying an officer equipped with nothing stronger than a telephoto lens, for example — to the rapidly advancing technology.

    “If you turn your country into a totalitarian surveillance state, there’s always some wrongdoing you can prevent,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The balance struck in our Constitution tilts toward liberty, and I think we should keep that value.”

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