I am the eye in the sky

I doubt that Alan Parsons had this in mind when he wrote that song back in the eighties.

Wide area persistent surveillance is a young, and fast-growing field of police technology devoted to making the Eye in the Sky a real thing. It tends not to get a lot of media coverage, and I suspect most of the vendors and their customers like it that way. If you read on, you'll understand why. However, there's been some coverage recently in the US, as The Washington Post, The Atlantic and PBS all ran stories on an Ohio company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, and how their platform was tested (covertly) by the police department in Compton, California (a suburb of Los Angeles). By the look of things, the tests were seen as successful.

The field of persistent surveillance was born in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts of the 2000s decade, developed for Allied forces to hunt down people in the service of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. With those days fading into the rearview mirror, the developers are now seeking new markets in the civilian world. The technology involves putting a cluster of very high resolution cameras into an aircraft, and then flying that aircraft for many hours at a time, at an altitude sufficient to capture pretty much everything that's going on below within the cameras' line of sight. Camera footage is fed in real time to a command center, where operators can keep watch on the general situation below. When an event is detected - a robbery or car accident for example - they can zoom down to see individual people and vehicles, begin to track their movements, and dispatch a squad care to give chase.  The systems can't yet pick out individual faces, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time before that's possible.

Police departments can keep watch over a whole city in this manner (that's the 'wide-area' part), with great accuracy, and for long stretches of time (the 'persistent' part). The system acts as a force multiplier for law enforcement agencies that use it, allowing them to detect and respond to incidents that certainly would have eluded them in the past.

As you can imagine, the users absolutely love that, and they love the economic part too,  most police agencies around the world being more or less budget constrained.  The system costs about the same to operate as one police helicopter, but with (the vendor claims) ten thousand times greater visual coverage.

So, the users wax poetic about it. And, as you can imagine, in the US this is causing a stir in the endless tug-of-war between privacy advocates and law enforcement agencies.

My take? Whether you love it or hate it, wide area persistent surveillance is the future of law enforcement, as well as other areas of emergency management - natural disasters, oil and chemical spills, and the like. Of course it will continue to be used in military scenarios as well. In some countries, laws will be enacted to put curbs on what information from these systems government officials can and cannot look at, save in a database, and use in the course of carrying out their duties. In those countries, there will be closely monitored and legally compliant use, but there will be some illegal use as well. That's because the technology will be available on the black market, in the same way as illegal firearms are. In some countries, they won't even bother with the pesky regulations, and wide area persistent surveillance systems will be operated at full force. No matter where you live, privacy, as most of us conceive it, is a thing of the past.

Expect the technology to improve a lot. We'll see miniaturization (picture one of these systems mounted on a micro drone); advancement in camera resolution and performance;  faster connection speeds; and advanced analytics software which begins to not only track activity on the ground, but predict it as well, correlating events captured through the surveillance system with other event data gathered across the IOT.

Pretty mind boggling.