Friday, June 18, 2010

Imaging, Spy-Cams and Drones: The New Hi Tech Homeland Security State

by Tom Burghardt

As "gee-whiz" high-tech wonders seamlessly morph into "your papers, please!," more often than not in "new normal" America science and technological innovation are little more than deranged handmaids serving corporate crime and political power.

In the interest of "keeping us safe," the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled a spiffy new surveillance cam "that puts others to shame," CNET breezily reported last week.

The Imaging System for Immersive Surveillance (ISIS) is a hemispherical group of cameras roughly the size of a basketball that, if one believes giddy accolades by enthusiasts touting the system, will lovingly wrap us in a "high-res video quilt," a DHS press release gushes.

The ultra-wide camera undergoing field-tests since December at Boston's Logan International Airport, streams distortion free, real-time stitched video and has a resolution capacity of approximately 100 megapixels which our guardians say is "as detailed as 50 full-HDTV movies playing at once, with optical detail to spare. You can zoom in close...and closer...without losing clarity."

But with an abundance of acronyms, and a decided lack of imagination from a gaggle of secret state agencies, one shouldn't confuse Homeland Security's ISIS with one incubating beneath the dark wings of the Pentagon's "blue sky" office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

That program, Integrated Sensor Is Structure, also known as ISIS, is being shepherded along by Lockheed Martin, America's No. 1 defense corp. DARPA's ISIS promises to build an autonomous airship powered by solar fuel cells for American warfighters, one capable of staying aloft for a decade above 70,000 feet, well out of the way of an adversary's surface to air missiles.

According to the description on the Strategic Technology Office's web site, their ISIS "will develop the technologies that enable extremely large lightweight phased-array radar antennas to be integrated into an airship platform." This would enable ground commanders "to track the most advanced cruise missiles at 600 km and dismounted enemy combatants at 300 km."

Pentagon gurus and the corporations they so lovingly serve, recently awarded Lockheed Martin and subcontracting Raytheon Corporation, a $400 million dollar contract for Phase III work on the radar system, Defense Systems reported in April. DARPAcrats claim the high-flying airship will provide "theatre-wide, persistent area surveillance and tracking capabilities" to America's Borg Army of resource grabbers.

And with The New York Times reporting June 14 that the "United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself," it doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that sometime soon the corrupt Karzai regime, the Taliban, their ISI paymasters and their American overlords will cozy up and play "let's make a deal"!

Nor should either project be confused with the failed "secure border" scheme known as the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System or ISIS (there it is again!) or its successor, America's Shield Initiative. No, that corporatist boondoggle which cost taxpayers some $439 million between 1997 and 2006, eventually morphed into the equally useless Secure Border Initiative or SBInet.

Fully in keeping with the tenor of the times, to wit, that government should get "out of the way" and let business work its magic, DHS's own Inspector General described the troubled history of the project in critical testimony to Congress. The IG criticized lax practices that led the Department to allow the contractors, led by Boeing Corporation, decide what the system would look like and what technology would be used to build it.

Needless to say, that didn't work out well! Just this week Washington Technology reported that Boeing "could see its lucrative, but troubled Secure Border Initiative contract scaled back as Homeland Security Department officials consider stopping future construction of the 'virtual-fence' security systems along the U.S.-Mexico border."

Like predecessor ISIS, the $800 million program has suffered from delays, technical glitches and "changes" in direction. In March, Home Sec Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the program was "being re-evaluated as part of an ongoing reassessment." No matter, with cash in hand Boeing, and a string of disappointed subcontractors, can afford to "move on."

But I digress...

No dear readers, the Heimat Security project I'm describing is close to earth, perhaps only a few feet above the congested street where you trod, oblivious to the legion of minders busily stripping you of your rights; above all, the right to be left alone. Ah, but there's the rub. Why should any of Oceania's proud citizens have anything to fear? After all, only evil-doers have something to hide, don't they? Why wouldn't you leap with joy at the prospect of being enwrapped in a vid-quilt cocoon lovingly designed by America's finest minds?

"Traditional surveillance cameras can be of great assistance to law enforcement officers for a range of scenarios," DHS flacks croon. "Canvassing a crowd for criminal activity during a Fourth of July celebration, searching for who left a suitcase bomb beneath a bench, or trying to pick out a terrorist who has fled the scene and blended into a teeming throng in the subway."

Who'd oppose that?

But why stop there? Surely there are other applications for the privacy-killing gizmo. Where did that political malcontent go after handing out "subversive" leaflets at the mall? And that flash mob of miscreants protesting an oil firm's board meeting or, heavens forbid!, bum-rushing grifting merchants of death at an industry trade show; where'd they scram to? Multitasking is the name of the game and DHS has got it covered!

A joint project of the Science and Technology Directorate's Infrastructure and Geophysical Division, MIT's Lincoln Laboratory and the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, ISIS was built with off-the-shelf cameras, image processors and readily-available commercial software. No need to reinvent the wheel here in these tough economic times!

The innocent-looking array points in all directions and captured images are "stitched" together, creating a creepy "god's eye" view that allow CCTV operators to easily track people back and forth through the HD "quilt" files without losing a single suspect, I mean American, as they pass from one field to the next.

"Other neat tricks" enthusiasts effervesce, "will be provided by a suite of software applications called video analytics. One app can define a sacrosanct 'exclusion zone,' for which ISIS provides an alert the moment it's breached. Another lets the operator pick a target--a person, a package, or a pickup truck--and the detailed viewing window will tag it and follow it, automatically panning and tilting as needed." (emphasis in original)

We're told that "video analytics at high resolution across a 360-degree field of view, coupled with the ability to follow objects against a cluttered background, will provide"--wait!--"enhanced situational awareness as an incident unfolds."

"We've seen that terrorists are determined to do us harm," Dr. John Fortune, the I&G's head honcho told contractors lining up to get a slice of the vid-quilt pie. "ISIS is a great example of one way we can improve our security by leveraging our strengths."

And should things, pardon the pun, pan out, "ISIS creators already have their eyes on a new and improved second generation model, complete with custom sensors and video boards, longer range cameras, higher resolution, a more efficient video format."

"Eventually," we're told, "the Department plans to develop a version of ISIS that will use infrared cameras to detect events that occur at night."


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