|Proposed aerial surveillance concerns Ohio city|
|Written by LISA CORNWELL, Associated Press|
|Sunday, 14 April 2013 10:36|
CINCINNATI (AP) — An aerial surveillance system proposed to help deter crime in a southwest Ohio city is drawing concerns from a civil liberties group and residents who fear it would violate individuals' privacy rights.
Some Dayton residents and officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio are worried about the surveillance video that would be recorded by a camera system on piloted aircraft.
"I'm concerned that this system would allow police to collect a huge amount of data that could then be mined for violations, even minor ones people might break unknowingly," said lawyer and Dayton resident Vernellia Randall, who also worries that innocent people's movements might be tracked.
Resident Maria Holt also is concerned the surveillance could be used "in a discriminatory way," possibly targeting segments of the population such as homeless individuals or African-Americans.
But Dayton police Chief Richard Biehl says the concerns are unfounded. He insists police would not track legal activity and wouldn't be able to determine race or gender from the video images or identify makes and models of cars or license plates.
"But when we know a crime event occurred at a specific location, and if we have footage of that area at the time, we could track movement to and from the site," Biehl said.
He also said police would use the surveillance to disrupt crime patterns. For example, if police identify a pattern of times or locations for a series of burglaries, they could deploy the surveillance accordingly. Information secured from the air would have to be supported by on-ground verification and investigation, Biehl said.
Under the proposal still being reviewed by city officials, Dayton would contract with Xenia-based Persistent Surveillance Systems LLC for a three-month pilot program of 120 hours of surveillance costing a total of $120,000 that would come from seized assets from crimes. The camera system could scan up to 25 square miles every second from an altitude of about 8,000 feet, with images fed to analysts on the ground.
Now-retired Dayton police Maj. Larry Faulkner oversaw the proposal's development and believes Dayton would be the first law enforcement agency in Ohio to use such a system. Other agencies in Ohio, including the State Highway Patrol, use planes and helicopters mostly for traffic enforcement or emergency situations. But this system would provide an investigative tool, said Faulkner, who insists it wouldn't violate privacy.
Anyone viewing the images would only see small dots representing people and only trained analysts would be able to decipher the footage that Faulkner likens to satellite images.
Company president Ross McNutt says his business has worked with law enforcement agencies in other countries and demonstrated the system for some in the United States, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Sheriff's Lt. Hiroshi Yokoyama said the system was demonstrated in Compton, Calif., but he didn't know if any decision had been made on its use.
McNutt said his company has helped police solve crimes, but it has strict privacy policies and only responds to reported crimes or investigations.
"We don't look at people just going down the street," he said.
Biehl says the system also could assist in weather emergencies, large-scale disturbances, SWAT operations and monitoring of illegal dumping. But its use would need to be limited and focused because of the cost.
Melissa Bilancini, policy coordinator for the ACLU of Ohio, said that group doesn't have a problem with surveillance for emergencies but is concerned about potential privacy violations and believes warrants should be required for crime surveillance — something Biehl argues isn't necessary because tracked movements would be in plain view.
While other Ohio cities, including Cincinnati, are looking to increase use of ground surveillance cameras to fight crime, Dayton's proposal comes as privacy concerns over aerial surveillance are surfacing around the country amid the growth in unmanned aircraft, or drones. Bilancini says evolving technology and decreasing costs make it essential "to put privacy protection policies in place now."
In northeast Ohio, Medina County Sheriff Tom Miller is considering using a 2-pound drone, similar to a remote-control model helicopter and equipped with a video camera, to search for missing persons and provide overviews of fires or other emergencies. But the sheriff says the small battery-powered aircraft, which can only stay up for about 20 minutes, will not be used for crime surveillance.
Trevor Timm, an activist with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation that focuses on civil liberties issues in the digital age, says aerial surveillance is becoming a "hot-button issue" with dozens of states considering laws to protect privacy.
"Whether manned or unmanned, there are still the same privacy concerns that people won't know their movements are being tracked," Timm said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
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