Police Use "Live Google Earth" To Watch Criminals In Real-Time

Michelle Ristuccia

Police hope that a "Live Google Earth" can help them track criminal movements, leading to more arrests, but they're not too comfortable telling the public that they can film them from the sky.

Air Force veteran Ross McNutt developed the aerial surveillance system to hunt down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. He started Persistent Surveillance Systems to commercially market the technology for police and security use. PSS uses cameras mounted to a civilian plane to monitor a 25-square-mile area for up to six hours, transmitting the data in real time to police officers down on the ground.

One of his latest customers, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, used PSS in the hopes of catching a necklace snatching thief in Compton.

"We literally watched all of Compton during the time that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people," McNutt told The Center for Investigative Reporting. "Our goal was to basically jump to where reported crimes occurred and see what information we could generate that would help investigators solve the crimes."

McNutt's "Live Google Earth" does have its limitations. Security cameras mounted on the ground are higher resolution, although they cover a much smaller area. PSS technology cannot zoom in on faces or other particular details that police might use as evidence in court. However, police hope to track criminal movements as leads that might lead to apprehensions other evidence.

"Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter," McNutt said. "But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch."

Even though wide-area surveillance potentially costs the tax payer less, police are generally reluctant to tell citizens about such advances in technology, for fear of public backlash.

"The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public," L.A. County sheriff's Sgt. Doug Iketani said. "A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush."

Law enforcement argues that such "Live Google Earth" surveillance is actually less invasive than cameras used on the ground because it cannot see faces or see into buildings. But at the rapid rate that technology improves, that's a pretty thin argument.

Wide-area surveillance is part of a post-9/11 approach to law enforcement called predictive or intelligence-led policing. With police data increasingly digitized, the FBI and many police departments are doing their best to create inter-connected databases and feed information into predictive computer models that can tell them where they should be patrolling.

Los Angeles Police Department's Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response Division, as one example, uses 1,000 surveillance cameras to feed data to a wall-mounted digital map of real-time reported crimes around Los Angeles.

PrivacySOS point out that predictive algorithms are only as good and as unbiased as the data being fed into them, and arrest records show a tendency for police to target minorities.

In Cula Vista, facial recognition software manufactured by FaceFirst helps police officers identify suspects without a dependence on ID, with a 1% error rate.

"You can lie about your name, you can lie about your date of birth, you can lie about your address," said Chula Vista police officer Rob Halverson. "But tattoos, birthmarks, scars don't lie."

Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, expressed concern over the FBI's desire to combine its 130 million fingerprints and 17 million mugshots into a searchable digital database. "Once the nation has a facial recognition database, and once facial recognition capabilities improve to the point that we can identify faces in a crowd, it will become possible for authorities to identify people as they move through society," Lynch said.

Unfortunately for the Los Angeles police, "Live Google Earth" is not that advanced yet. The necklace snatcher drove out of camera range and police were unable to identify the thief.