Most of us will remember how police found Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in a boat. Police found Tsarnaev using helicopters equipped with thermal imaging sensors that can “see” heat signatures that reveal the presence of warm things (like a human body hiding under a tarp in a boat). The technology is expensive and has been thus far mostly limited to public rescue planes and helicopters. But thanks to a new grant from Homeland Security, local police all around the country are now able to get their police cars equipped with these new gadgets and see thermal images projected right on to their police car laptops.
The United States Constitution does not authorize the formation of a National Police force, and law enforcement has been a local responsibility ever since the founding of the country. But what the federal government cannot do directly, it manages to find a way to do indirectly, through the justification of “national security”. The Department of Homeland Security has been providing local police with a wide assortment of new technologies and toys ostensibly designed to protect us from terrorists, and that’s of course what gets all the attention, but police are not waiting around for terrorists to show up after getting their squad cars all juiced up. Not surprisingly, they are finding other uses for the technology and that means they are using it on you and me.
Thermal imaging is really being used for one primary purpose: to find people where the human eye could not ordinarily see them. This means that in places where ordinary people would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, police are able to easily invalidate that expectation by using surveillance tools that abolish reasonable expectations. They can “see’ where people would not reasonably expect to be seen. What’s the problem with that, you say, if criminals are hiding? The problem is that police are NOT going to limit their surveillance to manhunts for terrorists on the run, they are going to drive around peeking into every dark corner they encounter, looking to see what they can see. Laying in a field of grass with your loved one watching a moonrise? Standing on your balcony at night watching the stars? You may have nothing to hide, but it’s still unsettling to know that your image might be under surveillance on some police car computer screen. The threat of “Big Brother” may seem cliché and trotted out way too often, but it’s a fact that we are rapidly losing every last shred of privacy we once thought we had by virtue of what is effectively becoming a National Police force funded by the federal government. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s a demonstrable and factual reality and you and I are paying for it.
As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”.
Read here how the Police Department in Marana, Arizona is using this technology.