Report Details Government’s Ability to Analyze Massive Aerial Surveillance Video Streams

Yesterday I wrote about Dayton Ohio’s plan for an aerial surveillance system similar to the “nightmare scenario” ARGUS wide-area surveillance technology. Actually, ARGUS is just the most advanced of a number of such “persistent wide-area surveillance” systems in existence and development. They include Constant Hawk, Angel Fire, Kestrel (used on blimps in Afghanistan), and Gorgon Stare.

One of the problems created by these systems—which have heretofore been used primarily in war zones—is that they tend to generate a deluge of video footage. A 2010 article says that American UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan produced 24 years’ worth of video in 2009, and that that number was expected to increase 30-fold (which would be 720 years’ worth) in 2011. Who knows what that’s up to this year, or where it will be by, say, 2025. The human beings who operate these systems can't possibly analyze all that footage.

In an attempt to solve this problem, Lawrence Livermore Labs has created a system for the military called “Persistics.” It can be used in conjunction with drone (or manned) camera systems such as ARGUS to help manage the vast oceans of video data that are now being generated. The system is

designed to help the Department of Defense and other agencies monitor tens of square kilometers of terrain from the skies, with sufficiently high resolution for tracking people and vehicles for many hours at a time.

That’s from a May 2011 report that I recently came across with the faintly ominous title “From Video to Knowledge.” Produced by Livermore Labs, it contains a lot of interesting detail about Persistics and the problems and solutions involved in massive aerial video surveillance.

The Persistics system consists of algorithms that “analyze the streaming video content to automatically extract items of interest.”

Its analysis algorithms permit surveillance systems to “stare” at key people, vehicles, locations, and events for hours and even days at a time while automatically searching with unsurpassed detail for anomalies or preselected targets.

With Persistics, the report boasts, “analysts can determine the relationships between vehicles, people, buildings, and events.” Among the capabilities touted in the report are:

  • “Seamless stitching" together of images from multiple cameras to create “a virtual large-format camera.”
  • Stabilizing video (“essential for accurate and high-resolution object identification and tracking”).
  • Eliminating parallax (the difference in how an object appears when viewed from slightly different angles).
  • Differentiating moving objects from the background.
  • The ability to automatically follow moving objects such as vehicles.
  • Creating a “heat map” representation of traffic density in order to “automatically discern if the traffic pattern changes.”
  • Comparing images taken at different times and automatically detecting any changes that have taken place.
  • Super-high “1,000-times” video compression.
  • The ability to provide all the locations a particular vehicle was spotted within a given time frame.
  • The ability to provide all the vehicles that were spotted at a particular location within a given time frame.

Technologically, according to the report, the Persistics program relies heavily on the explosion in the power of consumer Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) used in video games and the like.

The report also says that the system “is being further enhanced” to work with ARGUS, and includes new details about that system:

Persistics can simultaneously and continuously detect and track the motion of thousands of targets over the ARGUS-IS coverage area of 100 square kilometers. ARGUS-IS can generate several terabytes of data per minute, hundreds of times greater than previous-generation sensors.

Previous reports said that ARGUS could cover 15 square miles; here it reports 100 square kilometers, which is 38.6 square miles. (I suppose we should expect Moore’s Law-like expansion in the capabilities of these systems.)

Of course, the system is designed to store and retrieve all the records and data about everything that it surveils:

Persistics supports forensic analyses. Should an event such as a terrorist attack occur, the archival imagery of the public space could be reviewed to determine important details such as the moment a bomb was placed or when a suspect cased the targeted area. With sufficiently high-resolution imagery, a law-enforcement or military user could one day zoom in on an individual face in a heavily populated urban environment, thus identifying the attacker.

As with every privacy-invading technology designed and/or sold as helping foil terrorists, we have to wonder how long it will be before it’s applied to tracking peace activists.

Future work on Persistics is focused on the kind of behavioral analytics that have been discussed in the context of programs such as “Trapwire.” Livermore scientists, according to the report, are now working on automated methods for identifying “patterns of behavior” that could indicate “deviations from normal social and cultural patterns” and “networks of subversive activity.”

Also under development are efforts to allow the three-dimensional viewing of targets, as well as “methods to overlay multiple sensor inputs—including infrared, radar, and visual data—and then merge data to obtain a multilayered assessment.”

Of course, much of this is unobjectionable from a domestic civil liberties point of view when it’s used as originally intended: on foreign battlefields. The problem comes when the government brings the technology home and turns it inward upon the American people. In fact, at the close of the report, Livermore contemplates exactly that:

Unmanned aircraft have demonstrated their ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] value for years in Afghanistan and Iraq. As U.S. soldiers return home, the role of overhead video imagery aided by Persistics technology is expected to increase. Persistics could also support missions at home, such as monitoring security at U.S. borders or guarding ports and energy production facilities. Clearly, with Persistics, video means knowledge—and strengthened national security.

Among the federal agencies most interested in the technology, the report says, is DHS.

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The zombie drones have begun their attack.

As these robots come to new life in unanticipated and malicious ways, will the humans who created them begin to realize that they themselves are soon to be devoured by their own zombie technology? These machines, once built to protect us and hunt our enemies, are being turned inward as a variety of military technologies built for defense begin to creep into use for domestic policing. This Military Urbanism is nowhere more apparent than with the police deployment of Wide Area Persistent Surveillance.

One such town who is faced with the onslaught of their own drone technology, zombified to return and turn its powers on them, is Dayton, Ohio. With it's booming defense and drone industries spewing out deadly and invasive surveillance tech, the town is faced wih an existential question: "Will we live under Persistent Surveillance"? As pushers of the drone industry, how does the city like the idea of living under constant watch? How does a town that turns the drones on others react to living under the watch of the very machine they created? The tech has returned, but different..out of control...with no sense of right and wrong. Its the same shell, but without the values of it's developers.The tech is disembodied fom its original purpose and now turned on its creators..but with no ill intent. Drones have no intent. Zombie drones have no values.

WIDE AREA PERSISTENT SURVEILLANCE is a system that allows one single aircraft (manned or drone) to record entire cities with enough clarity to follow individual pedestrians and vehicles anywhere in the city on a persistent 24/7 basis inside the recorded footage. This military sensor known alternatively as “ARGUS”, “Hawkeye II”, “Angelfire” and the “gorgon stare” also employs sophisticated software that allows computers to auto-track millions of moving objects and assign “tracklets” that can pinpoint a vehicles location at a time of the users choosing, much like a chronograph of cell phone geo-location data. This automation means that analysts need not even watch the footage, but instead simply query the system to locate anyone in the city at any given time, pursuant to forensic discovery. WAPS cameras mounted on planes, drones and blimps enable 24/7 persistent surveillance of entire cities 100sq kilometers in diameter.

This technology is now going commercial, with companies like and PIXIA ( ) offering the Commercially Operated Persistent Surveillance Solution (COPSS). Local police have been utilizing these types of sensors since 2008 IN SECRET over cities including Cincinnati, Compton, Philadelphia, Columbus etc. in murder and narcotics investigations. US cities close to the border most likely endure more of this type of surveillance. This dragnet recording and auto-tracking puts everyone in the city under 24/7 surveillance that is the equivalent of having a private eye follow you everywhere you go with a video camera, including the ability to use night vision, thermal and look into your backyard.

While never tested in the courts and never given public approval, these police and DHS surveillance operations are already underway and the entrance of DRONES will vastly increase the deployment of these sensors by enabling previously unviable persistence and drastically lowering deployment costs. Putting all American citizens under drone-enabled 24/7 airborne surveillance is patently unconstitutional and is an existential threat to democracy and freedom of speech. Regardless of whether or not a drone is flying it, ARGUS and other Persistent Surveillance tech must not be allowed to operate domestically. Surveillance with a city-wide focus spies on everyone, "incidentally" or not. Please stand up and fight the use of Wide Area Persistent Surveillance against US citizens.

For years America has been conducting its drone wars with little thought to " do unto others..."
As the drones circle back above us, perhaps its not too late to change how we conduct our wars, our business , our city and ourselves....

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