Here’s a story:
In Dayton, Ohio, Angie Horne went home one day unexpectedly during her lunch break. When she got there, she saw a plain white moving van parked in her neighbor’s driveway. A guy was moving furniture out of the house. She knew her neighbor well enough to be sure that this was a theft, not a family decision. She called 911. But, by the time the police arrived, the van was gone along with her neighbor’s possessions. Too bad, right? Not.
The police contacted a man with a superpower named Alex Blassingame. Alex traveled backwards in time until he found the van parked at the neighbor’s house. Then, he followed it forward in time until he came upon it, in the present. It was parked in a parking lot six blocks away from the crime scene. The police went in, found the van and the perp. They brought in Angie, and she identified the robber. Crime solved.
Fantasy, science fiction, right? Not.
When this true story happened Alex Blassingame worked for an existing company—Persistent Surveillance Systems, which is headquartered in Dayton. His superpower is based on a technique developed during the Iraq War to stop the roadside bombs that were killing and maiming so many American troops.
An army engineer named Ross McNutt and his team developed project Angel Fire—a way of constantly watching the whole city of Fallujah. They put an array of special cameras on the bellies of a fleet of small planes. The pilots took turns doing six-hour tours. Operating at 15,000 feet, the cameras took, every second, a photo of the entire 25 square miles of the city. The photos were beamed down to the ground, were processed, and made ready. When a bomb exploded, the investigators, at their screen, looked at the picture of the blast and then went backwards in time, second by second, until they saw the bombers’ vehicle. Then they went forward, second by second, to the house where the vehicle went after planting the bomb. Special Forces went in, and the bombers were put out of business.
Persistent Surveillance Systems is a commercial company formed to sell this technology to government entities. The system, now dubbed HawkeyeII, has been used to trace perpetrators of drug violence against law enforcement officers in Juarez, Mexico. This could be a really good thing, no? Well, yes. But.
There is the other side of the story to consider; the balance between anarchy and the police state comes into the argument. How far does any society want to go to allow itself to be closely watched? If the city government has this data can Officer Jones use it to see where her husband goes when she is on duty? Can Harry Johnson’s boss pay for it to watch whether Harry visits a topless bar while on a business trip to Des Moines.
Persistent Surveillance Systems claims that they are using low-resolution photography that does not identify the individual person (who would amount to one pixel on their screens). But still. How far do we want the government to go in crime prevention? Who gets to say?
For now, municipalities in the US are opting to spend their crime prevention dollars in more socially acceptable ways. But as we have always known, once a new technology becomes available, it does tend to get used.
PS: If you want to know more, you can go to these links—
A YouTube that explains how it works:
The RadioLab show where I first heard about this (It has a lively discussion of the social implications of this technology.):
Annamaria - Monday