Memphis, Tennessee-based ESI Companies, Inc. is behind a quite creepy technology platform they call SkyCop, capable of enabling widespread, long-term surveillance across entire cities.
SkyCop is just one of many aspects of the massive rise of video surveillance, including cloud-based video surveillance, in cities across the world. One must also consider the rise of technologies like behavioral recognition along with a massive increase in the deployment of facial recognition in everything from mannequins in retail stores to border crossings and more.
While SkyCop sounds thoroughly futuristic as it integrates fusion centers, mobile surveillance systems, remote video systems, vehicle license plate and surveillance systems, digital recording systems and wireless communication, it has already been deployed in some areas.
The platform was originally developed in 2007 in concert with the Memphis Police Department, according to ESI Companies, as part of the police department’s Blue Crush Initiative.
While ESI seems to imply that “a dramatic decrease in criminal activity in critical ‘hot’ spots for crime and has increased conviction rates” is linked to their platform by pointing out that it happened after Memphis implemented SkyCop, this might not be the case.
One must point out that here has actually been a recent surge in some violent crime rates and, according to reports, the Blue Crush program “was used only sparingly for much of the past year,” largely due to budgetary constraints.
While ESI implicitly links SkyCop to the reduction in crime, others say it was actually Blue Crush, a program that involved much more than just the SkyCop platform.
Furthermore, those with a discerning eye likely note that this is nothing but an anecdote on the part of ESI – even if SkyCop was somehow linked to the crime reduction – and thus cannot be considered strong evidence by any means.
British non-profit Nacro, for instance, penned a 2002 briefing covering “research into the effectiveness of CCTV, which suggests that it is not always as successful at reducing crime as it is claimed to be.”
Furthermore, Detective Chief Inspector Mike Neville, head of Scotland Yard’s Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office said in 2008 that the UK’s CCTV system was an “utter fiasco” and was related to solving only 3% of London’s street robberies.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has pointed out many other issues with video surveillance, not to mention the massive privacy concerns surrounding license plate scanners – another part of the SkyCop system – brought up by the ACLU and others.
Yet still Toledo, Ohio has deployed SkyCop as part of their Observation Research Intelligence Operations Network (ORION), and has plans to double the number of cameras to a total of 150 according to the Toledo Free Press.
Toledo isn’t alone. The Fort Leonard Wood military police purchased two Dodge Chargers in 2009 outfitted with the SkyCop system according to Guidon.
According to El Paso Inc., the El Paso Police Department has “quietly expanded its use of the SkyCop system” since 2009 and raised concerns among the ACLU of Texas given “the technology’s potential to invade people’s privacy.”
According to ESI, others who have picked up SkyCop technologies include the city of Millington, Tennessee, Shelby County, Tennessee, Olive Branch, Mississippi and Brownsville, Texas.
Much of SkyCop’s claims are quite deceptive.
“Crime centers, also known as fusion centers, are now recognized as a vital technological defense to combat exacerbating crime rates,” the SkyCop website claims.
In reality, a Senate panel concluded that the Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers produce “predominantly useless information” and “a bunch of crap.”
The SkyCop platform seems to be aimed at creating an all-encompassing surveillance state integrating solar powered surveillance systems capable of wireless communications, gunshot recognition, environmental sensing devices, etc., Mobile License Plate Recognition & Video Surveillance Systems (MLPRVs), wireless network systems with a range of 30+ miles, and even data analytics supposedly allowing police to “examine past criminal behavior to better predict future criminal activity.”
It is unclear how accurate any of the claims made by SkyCop actually are, especially based on their misrepresentation of fusion centers and the power of video surveillance in general.
However, in my assessment, the bigger issue here is the fact that these types of systems are capable of massive invasions of privacy and violations of constitutionally protected rights which would never have been possible in the past.