U.S. Capitol Police will begin fielding military surveillance equipment as part of sweeping security upgrades as the force becomes “an intelligence-based protective agency” after the Jan. 6 attack.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently approved a Capitol Police request for eight Persistent Surveillance Systems Ground - Medium (PSSG-M) units. The system provides high-definition surveillance video and is enabled with night vision. The system does not include facial recognition capabilities, the Pentagon said.
“This technology will be integrated with existing USCP camera infrastructure, providing greater high definition surveillance capacity to meet steady-state mission requirements and help identify emerging threats,” the Pentagon said.
The technology allowed U.S. troops fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to monitor large areas 24/7 through extremely high-resolution cameras.
Some privacy rights advocates have raised concern that Capitol Police are getting into the business of spying on Americans.
In a wartime application, the persistent surveillance units were mounted on tethered blimps. The data could be stored, combined with sensor data from other platforms, and later referenced or rewound to track individuals or groups.
The military could use the system to develop “pattern of life” analyses on suspected enemy combatants or intelligence targets in war zones. It could determine, for example, who was responsible for placing an improvised explosive device.
The Department of Homeland Security has leased the same or similar technology, described as Persistent Ground Surveillance System(s) (PGSS), through the Department of Defense, according to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report. It is not clear whether any other agency has fielded the exact technology domestically.
A federal appeals court ruled last month against the Baltimore Police Department’s use of persistent surveillance technology similar to the Pentagon’s Gorgon Stare, which incorporates wide-area motion imagery pods mounted on aircraft. The system allowed police to track hundreds of moving targets at once throughout a large geographical footprint. The court said the program was unconstitutional and violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
The technology used in the pilot program in Baltimore, known as Aerial Investigation Research, was owned by a private company and the pilot program was privately funded. The technology allowed the police department to capture up to 12 hours of footage per day.
An independent audit team from New York University’s School of Law found that the Baltimore Police Department retained a significant amount of imagery from the surveillance system and used the footage to track individuals for multiple days.
Capitol Police provided few details when The Washington Times asked for specifics about how and where the department will use the PSSG-M equipment. The agency would not say whether the data will be stored or disseminated or whether the system will be used only for real-time observation.
The Pentagon said the Army will install the units and train Capitol Police officers to operate and maintain the system. The Army will not operate the units once they are installed.
When asked whether data from the PSSG-M system would feed to agencies besides Capitol Police or how specifically the fielding of the system would improve upon Capitol security infrastructure, the department declined to respond.
“Hopefully, you can understand it wouldn’t be smart of us tell the world all our capabilities,” a Capitol Police official told The Times.
As an agency of the legislative branch, U.S. Capitol Police is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Lynne Bernabei, a lawyer based in Washington who specializes in civil rights litigation, said Capitol Police use of the PSSG-M technology does not immediately raise civil liberties concerns. Given the extraordinary circumstances of the Jan. 6 attack, she said, the use of the technology could be legitimate.
The problem with fielding surveillance technology has never been with the technology itself, but with how the resulting data is used to stereotype or target certain individuals and groups, Ms. Bernabei said.
Others are less convinced that the technology will be put to good purpose.
William Owen from the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project said the integration of the technology signals an alarming advance of police surveillance.
“These so-called improvements that the Capitol Police have implemented after the insurrection represent an expansion of police power and surveillance that STOP cautioned against in January,” he said.
“As awful as the events on Jan. 6 were, increased use of biased surveillance technology is never the answer,” he said. “Such technology will inevitably be used to target Black, brown, and Muslim communities and protesters, not White, racist, far-right mobs like those who were given free rein to enter the Capitol. So we need greater civilian oversight of police, not greater police power.”
The integration of the military technology was among several changes that Capitol Police announced last week. Another plan is to open field offices in California and Florida to “investigate threats to Members of Congress.” Additional regions are under consideration for field offices, the announcement states.
Capitol Police also announced increased intelligence-sharing with local and federal law enforcement entities and increased “partnership within the intelligence community.”
The House sergeant-at-arms announced last week that U.S. Capitol Police would remove the security fence that has surrounded the Capitol since the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack. The statement said the decision was based on an assessment of the current threat environment.
• Joseph Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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