Miami-Dade County

To fight crime, Miami-Dade may deploy blanket surveillance from the air

What aerial surveillance looks like

A video uploaded by Persistent Surveillance Systems shows what the "Hawkeye II" system looks like in a demo video.
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A video uploaded by Persistent Surveillance Systems shows what the "Hawkeye II" system looks like in a demo video.

Miami-Dade police may deploy sophisticated aerial surveillance capable of photographing everyone outside for 32 square miles in an effort to track vehicles and individuals involved in crimes.

The proposal, first reported by the Miami New Times, would send a surveillance plane high above high-crime neighborhoods to film everything below, according to Lt. Juan Villalba Jr. Already used in Baltimore, the technology lets police pull footage after a crime occurs and try to recreate where the perpetrators came from on their way to the scene and where they fled to afterward.

“It’s kind of like a DVR,” Villalba said, referring to playing back television shows hours after they air. “This will allow us to go back and look at what happened.”

Already used in Baltimore and other cities, the technology has helped spark a national debate on civil liberties as it pushes the edge of what’s possible now in mass surveillance. The camera system tracks how the U.S. pursued suicide bombers in Iraq, and the American Civil Liberties Union has called it “terrifying” for the potential to record every citizen’s movement when he or she is visible from the sky.”

“This is not the way to adopt public policy — no system of surveillance should be put into place until it is first established that there is a need which this system addresses, and that there are protections in place for the privacy of the people of Miami-Dade County,” the ACLU’s Florida said in a statement Thursday from executive director Howard Simon. “Until these protections for the rights and privacy of the people of Miami-Dade County are put into place, the grant request should be withdrawn.”

With increasingly cheaper surveillance cameras already mounted on lampposts, buildings, traffic lights and homes throughout Miami-Dade — not to mention the prevalence of cellphone footage — the sophisticated aerial surveillance arrives at a time when people are used to being recorded when they leave home.

“You have no expectation of privacy when you walk outside,” said Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade. “I have no expectation of privacy in my backyard.”

Gimenez’s administration is asking the County Commission for retroactive approval of requests for federal grant money that could total $1.2 million in order to run tests on the surveillance system. Police officials said they didn’t have time to seek board approval for the grant request before the application deadline.

A private contractor out of Ohio, Persistent Surveillance Systems, operates the planes and analyzes the footage under contracts with police and other agencies. In Baltimore, the program sparked extra controversy because it started in secret. A nonprofit, the Baltimore Community Support Program, hired Persistent Surveillance to run the flights and share information with police. The group’s website advertises it can help with a range of crimes, including auto thefts and illegal dumping.

Advocates note the current technology limits people to pixelated blurs on the footage — police can tell people are there and try to track them to an address, but not what a person looks like. “We wouldn’t be able to identify the race or the gender of the person,” Villalba said.

Pursuing the grant money is Miami-Dade’s first step in a process that would lead to future votes on establishing a permanent aerial surveillance program, including inviting companies to bid on the contract and a commission vote to award it.

With Miami-Dade spanning nearly 2,000 square miles, a surveillance plane flying 25,000 feet in the air would need to focus its cameras on a small piece of it at one time to capture footage within its 32-mile viewing field. That’s likely to put some of Miami-Dade’s poorest neighborhoods under heavy surveillance while more affluent areas are ignored. County police plan to deploy the surveillance in high-crime areas, which tend to be neighborhoods with lower incomes.

“We’re going to have to focus the technology on the areas and neighborhoods that the statistics show are experiencing high crime rates,” Villalba said.