Future Tense

Could the Pentagon’s 1.8 Gigapixel Drone Camera Be Used for Domestic Surveillance?

The ARGUS-IS mission poster

Image courtesy DARPA

From more than 17,000 feet in the air, it can see an object as small as six inches, tracking people and vehicles across an entire city. But the latest government-funded surveillance technology might be a violation of the Constitution if it is deployed in the United States, according to civil liberties groups.

Late last month, an episode of PBS’s series NOVA, “Rise of the Drones,” revealed for the first time the capabilities of an “ARGUS-IS”—the world’s highest resolution camera. Funded by the Pentagon’s research unit DARPA, the 1.8 gigapixel ARGUS was designed to be used on drones to monitor events on the ground below. It was developed by Jiannis Antoniades, an engineer with the defense firm BAE Systems, who told Nova the technology uses a “persistent stare” that is equivalent of having 100 Predator drones look at an area the size of a medium city at once. Merging together 368 separate image chips to create a single giant picture, it can save up to 1 million terabytes of data each day—that’s the equivalent of about 5,000 hours of high-definition footage—enabling the drone operator to “go back in time” to hone in on a particular event in a specific time or place. And perhaps most significantly, it can also automatically track “everything that is a moving object.”

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A constant eye in the sky hovering above a city, able to track movements and zoom in on any area in the past or present, could be powerful a powerful tool not just for the military in warzones—but for law enforcement agencies domestically. However, Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU, believes if the camera were to be deployed in the United States, it would raise legal questions. “We hope that the courts will recognize that the Fourth Amendment should provide protection from the kind of suspicionless tracking that this technology makes possible,” he told me.

Courts have previously ruled that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public places when it comes to surveillance. But location-tracking technologies and license-plate scanners allow for a new kind of ubiquitous retroactive monitoring by law enforcement that privacy advocates believe should require a search warrant authorized by a judge. According to Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a landmark Supreme Court judgment last year on GPS trackers may have a future bearing on the use of surveillance equipment like the ARGUS in the United States. The judgement in U.S. v. Jones held that law enforcement use of GPS devices to monitor movements constitutes a ‘search,’ making it difficult for police to put a tracker on a car without first obtaining a warrant because it falls under the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“This kind of tracking from cameras could raise the same concerns,” says Lynch. “If the cameras are never turned off and they are able to cover the area of a city and you’re able to pick out a specific person or even a specific car—that’s really problematic.”

Whether the ARGUS will be deployed on American soil in the foreseeable future is anyone’s guess. The technology is highly secretive; in the PBS broadcast, the engineer wouldn’t comment on deployment because he said it was “classified.” Either way, it’s almost certain to ramp up privacy concerns already simmering among lawmakers, who were last week warned about how drones could be used for stalking and voyeurism.