Surveillance systems moving to a new dimension

British police employing 3-D technology that tracks every digital move a suspect makes

The Metropolitan Police in London could be opening a new front in the online privacy debate with its purchase of software that essentially lets police track every digital move a suspect makes, the Guardian reported.

The GeoTime software collects and visualizes data from mobile phones, IP logs, Global Positioning System devices, social networking sites and financial transactions, and then creates a 3-D view — the third dimension being time — of the person’s movements. The events are depicted on a map, with time on a vertical axis.

The Metropolitan Police, the largest police force in the United Kingdom, confirmed to the Guardian that it had bought the software, but officials didn’t go into detail on how they’re using it.

Related coverage:

Under surveillance: Cities struggle to balance safety, privacy

Privacy advocates immediately raised concerns that GeoTime, which is made by Oculus Info, could be used to track not only suspects in serious crimes but people such as protesters, which they said would be a violation of data protection legislation, the Guardian reported.

The debate over balancing public safety and privacy has accelerated with the advent of new electronic surveillance tools. Cities in the United States have taken different approaches, ranging from a 165-camera, full-coverage surveillance system in Lancaster, Pa., to a decision by officials in Cambridge, Mass., not to install eight surveillance cameras because of concerns about how they would be used.

Some towns and cities have made surveillance systems parts of their neighborhood watch programs and invited people to view the video feeds and notify police of suspicious activity.

But software such as GeoTime, which the company says is the only tool with a 3-D view, could raise privacy debates to a new level.

Even if police only use such software when a surveillance warrant is issued, recent reports show that such warrants are fairly easy to get. Last year, the FBI received the go-ahead on every one of its 1,506 electronic monitoring requests. In the past two years, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which rules on the requests, has denied only two of 2,835 requests.

Several privacy advocates told the Guardian they were concerned about the government’s ability to collect high-resolution images of people’s activities, and they called on police to openly share information about who decides when and on whom such technology is used.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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