Monday, September 14, 2015

Time Travel: The Next Thing in Police Procedurals

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.

Watch out!

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      


  1. Do you remember Patrick McGoohan playing the title role in the "Secret Agent" TV series? If so, do you remember where he ended up once leaving Her Manesty's service? In a place that just came to life in your post! All is known, flee.

    1. Yes, but he did get a Lotus Se7en to play with, Jeff.

      It must be tough for sic-fi writers now because technological strides keep being made that fiction seem behind the times. Having said that, there used to be a company in the UK who made armoured limos that included a 'direction-of-fire' indicator to allow the occupants to de-bus on the safest side of the vehicle. Sounds like the latest tech, doesn't it? But it was actually in the late 60s or early 70s.

    2. It is DEFINITELY time to watch Secret Agent again. And stay in NYC! The odds of being left alone to go about one's business are still quite excellent here.

    3. The follow up show I believe was called "The Prisoner" and the only thing I remember him riding about in was a big bubble.

    4. I already have them both on my Netflix queue. Secret Agent is not available in the original yet, only the Ian McKellan remake, but Disk One of the Prisoner is not at the top of my queue. :)

  2. I remember many years ago when I read an article from an author (a well-known science fiction author, David Brin, I believe) proposing that society would need a "no secrets" law. In other words, it would be illegal to conceal ANYTHING, outside of the privacy of your home (I assume). At first it seemed a shocking proposal to me, but as a couple of decades have passed and technology moves on, I've often revisited the idea, and think it MAY be the only solution. As you pointed out, technology is rapidly moving us in the direction of very little privacy, and eventually the only defense may be to KNOW with certainty WHO is using it and WHY, at all times.

    Who watches the watchmen? The only real answer there can be: the watched, each and every one.

    1. I agree. BUT. How do we watch the watchers? They have the means to watch all of us. What are our means? That's the part that is hard. And there are many people who imagine that only the guilty are risk in a police state. It scares me.

    2. Yes, scary as hell. But you can get a glimpse of it by what's now going on with people filming police officers who are thus being held far more accountable than they ever have. I hope not to see it in my lifetime (as I grew up accustomed to my privacy), but I can well imagine a time when EVERYONE is required to wear a "body cam" (essentially) when they leave their private residence, and the recordings are, by law, stored "in the cloud," and everyone has access to them. That means everyone has the means to watch everyone, everyone IS "the watchers" in the public space, and all searches (watches) of those records will ALSO be publicly available, so not only can anyone search the records, but anyone can also search and see who is SEARCHING the records. Goodbye "public privacy," but also goodbye kidnapping, assaults and murders in public spaces, drug dealing, abuse of power, police corruption. Hide in the "private space?" Up to a point, but you still have to spend your money largely in the public space, or the things you spend large amounts of money on are publicly visible.

      It IS a scary proposition, but I can well imagine that people will adapt and adjust to that level of exposure. WE are MUCH different in our attitudes and expectations than people 150 years ago could ever have imagined. I expect people 100 years from now to be many times FURTHER different in their life experiences from what we could imagine or stomach. These things don't happen over night, with the flipping of a switch or the passage of a law, but society WILL change and adapt. It has no choice.

      For good or ill...

    3. I imagine you are exactly right about this. As I walk past the 19th century buildings in my downtown NYC neighborhood and see the very lovely NYU coeds in their scanty summer attire, I often think how scandalized the original inhabitants of these structures would be if they saw a girl in black bra and panties covered by a transparent pale gray dress walk by. And how amazing to find that she is Japanese! Tempus fugit!

  3. I read THE GREAT NORTH ROAD by one of my favourite sci-fi authors earlier this year, which has a kind of smart dust embedded in the city streets to allow 24/7 surveillance of just about everything. He also used 3D printing technology to great effect in this book.

    1. Sorry, probably should have mentioned author's name! Peter F Hamilton.